Gov’t contracts get closer scrutiny

The Cayman Islands Information Commissioner acknowledged Monday that new open records laws mean contracts between the government and private entities will be subject to greater public oversight than they were in the past.

‘The (Freedom of Information Law) clearly changes the nature of contractual relationships between government and private contractors,’ Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert said in a statement released Monday. ‘There must now be an expectation…that information contained within such contracts may be open to public scrutiny.’

The commissioner cautioned that any contract is still subject to certain exemptions from release under the FOI law. Those exemptions aim to protect a private company’s sensitive commercial information.

‘This would not prejudice the private contractor’s position,’ Mrs. Dilbert said.

The commissioner’s comments come in the wake of a Public Accounts Committee debate last month. During committee proceedings, Auditor General Dan Duguay criticised a confidentiality clause contained in an insurance settlement between the government and Cayman General Insurance.

The insurance claim was partially paid out following the destruction wreaked upon the Islands by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Government received a bit less than half the originally estimated $108 million claim in cash, plus 24 per cent of the shares issued by Cayman General.

The only public details of that settlement came via the release of the auditor’s report.

Mr. Duguay told the committee that the confidentiality clause meant the terms of the agreement were not in the public domain, but should have been, since the deal forewent some insurance money due to government ‘because there was a social need.’

Mrs. Dilbert also supported Mr. Duguay in his efforts to encourage the government to publish reports from the auditor general’s office, like the report regarding the Cayman General Insurance settlement, in a timely manner.

‘The government, both past and present, has stated its commitment to freedom of information in the Cayman Islands,’ Mrs. Dilbert said. ‘However, several serious issues that impact timely and full openness have been raised by the auditor general.’

Those concerns were raised publicly in a Caymanian Compass article from earlier this month.

Mr. Duguay said discussion among Public Accounts Committee members, that auditor’s reports be held from public release until the committee considers them, would set a ‘dangerous, dangerous precedent.’

Committee member Ellio Solomon told the Compass that due process needed to be followed in getting ‘all sides of the story’ regarding the auditor general’s reports. Mr. Solomon said he believed that was not done in the case of the Cayman General Insurance settlement.

‘You’ll get statements made (by the auditor)…the lack of a paper trail, confidentiality clause and then couple with that, no value for money, etcetera,’ Mr. Solomon said. ‘But if you listened to the debate, you caught something different.’

Mr. Duguay said there has been a recent effort by the Public Accounts Committee to deal with his office’s reports expeditiously, but he said the potential to abuse that process will remain if auditors reports are withheld pending the committee’s consideration.

‘If the auditor general writes a report that is critical of government operations, they’re able to delay that,’ Mr. Duguay said. ‘That’s not what happens in any country in the world and it shouldn’t happen here. It diminishes the independence of the auditor general.’ (See Compass, 14 August)

The issue of withholding auditors’ reports pending consideration of the Public Accounts Committee is expected to come before the Legislative Assembly as early as today.

Mrs. Dilbert urged lawmakers to, in effect, put their money where their mouth is on open government.

‘The publishing of reports, in a timely manner, will be a determining factor in establishing whether or not government is truly committed to two guiding principles of freedom of information – transparency and accountability.’