Saying they don’t have the financial resources, the Cayman Islands government’s Computer Services Department and Ministry of Tourism and Development are refusing to conduct a thorough search for certain public records in official government e-mail accounts, including the deactivated account of former Premier McKeeva Bush.
Computer Services said it will cost between $6,200 and $13,680 and require hundreds of hours of staff time to search e-mails covering a 10-month period before Mr. Bush was ousted from leadership in December.
The computer department’s estimate led the ministry to refuse to respond further to the Caymanian Compass’ request to view correspondence involving public officials, including Mr. Bush and buyers of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
The Compass has notified the Information Commissioner’s Office that the newspaper is dissatisfied with the ministry’s response.
The period of e-mails in dispute cover a 10-month time span specified by the ministry’s chief officer Stran Bodden, most likely within 2012. The Compass submitted its request six months ago, on 16 November. That’s about a month before Mr. Bush was removed from the position of premier following his arrest on suspicion of corruption and theft and his e-mail account was deactivated. The Ritz property was auctioned 31 October.
Mr. Bush now faces charges including misconduct in public office, breach of trust, and theft related to dishonest use of a government-issued credit card. His next appearance before Grand Court is set for 28 June, after the election.
Drawn out FOI
In mid-January, on the eve of the 60-day deadline to respond to the Compass request, the ministry’s information manager first contacted other civil servants in writing to help get access to Mr. Bush’s official e-mail account, which by then was inactive. Computer Services Department director Gilbert McLaughlin responded with concerns that “CSD staff may potentially be liable for human rights violation for fulfilling the request”.
The Compass then asked Mr. Bodden to review the government’s response. On 6 February, the information commissioner commenced a formal investigation.
On 1 March, Deputy Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers published a decision finding fault with government’s handling of the open records request on multiple levels, starting with the information manager’s delay in handling the request and also Computer Services’ reliance on an internal policy in contradiction to requirements of the Freedom of Information Law.
Mr. McLaughlin had said the department has a “longstanding, approved procedure” to obtain the deputy governor’s permission before granting access to inactive e-mail accounts.
On 26 March, Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert ordered Computer Services to provide Mr. Bodden with the public records requested by the Compass.
“Should the Computer Services Department fail to produce the requested records, or provide proof of an application for judicial review of this order to the Grand Court within the period specified by law, section 48 of the FOI law entitles me to certify in writing to the court the failure of the director of Computer Services Department to comply and the court may consider such failure under the rules relating to contempt of court,” according to Ms Dilbert’s order.
On 18 April, Mr. McLaughlin notified Mr. Bodden that Computer Services had spent “78 man hours of work” searching unsuccessfully for responsive e-mails. He said further that the department would have to conduct a “special restore” of e-mails – including ones that had been deleted – in order to ensure that no e-mails were missed in the search. “These restores are very time consuming and a costly process,” he said.
Mr. McLaughlin estimated that conducting a search for a period covering 10 months would cost 341 staff hours, “with a minimum of 121 of these hours as overtime”.
“The costs will be $6,200 to $13,680 depending on the final overtime hours required,” he said. Mr. McLaughlin said his department doesn’t have the budget to pay for those costs, and would only be able to conduct the search if the ministry would foot the bill. Mr. Bodden then notified the Compass that his ministry also was not in the financial position to pay for those costs.
The ministry has previously provided the Compass with two pieces of correspondence related to Ritz buyers RC Cayman – an e-mail from April 2012 from Mr. Bodden to RC Cayman representatives and a June 2012 letter from RC Cayman to Mr. Bush.