Commission of Enquiry dominates early-year news

Commission of Enquiries have seldom taken place in the Cayman Islands, but 2008 saw one such event.

In November 2007, Governor Stuart Jack announced the convening of a Commission of Enquiry into allegations that Cabinet Minister Charles Clifford had wrongly taken confidential government documents and files and given them to the media when he resigned as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Tourism at the end of July 2004.

Former Minister of Tourism and current Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush had complained about Mr. Clifford’s actions since February 2005, when Bruce Dinwiddy was still governor. Mr. Dinwiddy looked into the matter perfunctorily and took no action.

However, after upsetting Cayman Net News Publisher Desmond Seales by refusing to have Cayman Airways ship his newpapers to Grand Cayman from Miami without pre-payment, Mr. Seales publicly revealed Mr. Clifford as the source of government documents used for stories that presented Mr. Bush in a negative light. After seeking legal advice, Governor Jack decided to convene the Commission of Enquiry in January 2008, with a former justice of the English High Court, Sir Richard Tucker, presiding. Local attorney Andrew Jones served as his legal counsel.

Governor Jack also announced the proceedings would be held in public and that the terms of reference would be expanded to look at some other issues of good governance.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts responded by blasting the governor, saying he has overstepped the law in ordering the commission. However, the government decided not to go to court to try to block the proceedings.

The Enquiry got under way on 21 January in the small office above the Fort Street Market in George Town. Among those giving testimony were Mr. Clifford, Mr. Seales, and Mr. Bush.

Mr. Clifford admitted taking the files, but said they were his copies and that he was allowed to take them. During questioning from Attorney Mr. Jones, Mr. Clifford admitted he thought the documents were confidential at the time he took them, but that he did so for reason of public interest, specifically to reveal what he felt was wrongdoing by Mr. Bush.

Mr. Clifford, through his attorneys, later denied the media reports that stated he had admitted the documents were confidential during the testimony.

During the Enquiry, it was revealed that former Governor Dinwiddy would testify by teleconference. However, the media was not to be allowed to attend that testimony. Later, Mr. Dinwiddy backed out of testifying because he did not want to be subject to cross examination by attorneys for the varying parties. In the end, Mr. Dinwiddy merely had a chat with Sir Richard, Mr. Jones and Commission Secretary Colin Ross. Mr. Dinwiddy answered questions, but the oral evidence was not recorded.

In early February, transcripts of all the oral testimony with the exception of Mr. Dinwiddy’s were released to the public. The transcripts refuted Mr. Clifford’s denial that he had admitted he knew the documents were confidential.

When the Commission of Enquiry issued its report in March, it deemed Mr. Clifford had acted wrongly and in breach of his continuing duty of confidentiality, but it recommended no legal or disciplinary action.

Mr. Clifford saw the refusal to take any actions against him as a victory, while Mr. Bush saw the pronouncement of wrongdoing as vindication of what he had been saying all along.

A poll conducted about outcome of proceeded showed that half the respondents felt the Enquiry’s conclusions reflected very poorly on Mr. Clifford. A quarter of the respondents thought the procedure was a complete waste of time and money.

The Commission of Enquiry report issued in late March made a number of recommendations, which Governor Jack said he hoped would be ‘swiftly implemented’.

In August, the Governor announced that Cabinet members had accepted most of the recommendations, but they rejected the suggestion of a hiatus for senior civil servants before they can run for political office.

The Commission recommended that senior civil servants of a certain rank not be allowed to offer themselves as candidates for the next election after their retirement or resignation from their position.

Mr. Jack told the Cabinet members they should keep an open mind on the subject if the issue came up during the constitution negotiations with the UK.

The Enquiry cost almost $250,000 to conduct. When it came time to approve the funding, Cabinet refused to do so and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had to use its powers to force the funding through.