Members of the opposition United Democratic Party said Wednesday that the Legislative Assembly’s Finance Committee was misled about a salary advance that was given to former University College of the Cayman Islands President Hassan Syed.
Deputy Auditor General Garnet Harrison told finance committee members last Friday, 13 June, that a salary advance was paid to Mr. Syed at some point and that the auditor’s office believed UCCI Board of Governors Chairman Conor O’Dea had knowledge of that advance being paid.
Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush said committee members did not get that impression when Mr. O’Dea appeared before them on 9 June to address questions about an ongoing investigation of unsubstantiated financial transactions involving Mr. Syed. Those transactions were discovered during an annual audit of the university’s books.
‘Finance Committee (members) rely largely on written and oral evidence, and the committee must place great importance on the truthfulness of any evidence given to us,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘Evasion of the truth by technicalities…is not accepted.’
Caymanian Compass enquiries to Mr. O’Dea on the matters raised by opposition party members had not been returned by press time. However, Education Minister Alden McLaughlin, who has responsibility for UCCI, said Mr. Bush was jumping to conclusions regarding the salary advance.
‘This is not an issue of trying to cover up anything,’ Mr. McLaughlin said, adding that it was he who had requested Mr. O’Dea’s testimony before finance committee shortly after the investigation into the financial transactions was revealed.
It was Mr. Bush’s questioning in an earlier meeting of the finance committee that led to that revelation.
The Compass has obtained a copy of the 9 June hansard from the Legislative Assembly, which recorded the following discussion about Mr. Syed’s salary advance between Mr. Bush, Mr. O’Dea and Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth Jefferson:
Mr. Bush: ‘Mr. Chairman, did the (UCCI) Board approve any kind of grant to the president (Mr. Syed)?’
Mr. Jefferson: ‘Mr. O’Dea?’
Mr. O’Dea: ‘When you say grant, Mr. Bush….?’
Mr Bush: ‘The president who recently resigned, that is.’
Mr. Jefferson: ‘Mr. O’Dea?’
Mr. O’Dea: ‘Suffice it to say that during my tenure as chairman, since April 2007, at no stage did the president or anybody from the university bring forward to the board any requests for special grant. And the president, as I understand it, operated under his contract and his entitlements under his contract, and certainly, as I said, nothing else has been brought to the (UCCI) Board of Governors.’
Mr. Jefferson: ‘Thank you.’
Mr. Bush: ‘No grants, but salary advances?’
Mr. O’Dea: ‘Nothing has been brought to the board in that respect.’
Four days later, Mr. Jefferson addressed the committee regarding Mr. O’Dea’s answers on 9 June.
‘The Chairman (Mr. O’Dea) answered that no, no grant had been approved by the Board of Governors of UCCI. That indeed is correct. Subsequent to us taking the vote on the UCCI appropriation I had a discussion with Mr. Harrison of the audit office and he indicated, indeed, the response given was correct, but there was in fact, a payment made to the former president and the audit office was continuing to review the matter and it had not concluded its review as yet.’
Mr. Harrison said the chairman of the UCCI Board of Governors, Mr. O’Dea, would have known of a salary advance at some point in time, but Mr. Harrison was not certain when he would have obtained that knowledge.
Mr. Bush said the answers from Mr. O’Dea went against the intent of the questions he had asked on 9 June.
‘We’re not here to kill anybody,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘But we cannot set a precedent where anyone can just come in here and just tell us anything. The spirit and intent of a question is to inform the committee; how else can we do our work?’
Mr. Bush said he intended to raise the issue with Speaker of the House Edna Moyle, claiming the privilege of the finance committee had been breached. According to Legislative Assembly Standing Orders, it is up to Mrs. Moyle to rule whether a breach of privilege had occurred.
According to the standing orders, House committees do have the power to summon witnesses but do not require those witnesses to swear an oath or provide any punishment for lying to or misleading lawmakers.