Education Minister Tara Rivers has declined to answer increasingly critical questions regarding her qualifications to contest May’s national polls, her prospective service in the Legislative Assembly and her appointment to Cabinet.
The newly elected independent representative from West Bay, who was named minister of education, labour and gender affairs by Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin on 28 May, refused comment at the weekend on last week’s Grand Court petition challenging her legitimacy as an elected official.
In a four-paragraph statement on Friday morning, Ms Rivers declined to address allegations that she had failed to disclose that she carried a US passport and did not fulfil a seven-year local-residency requirement binding electoral candidates.
While vowing “to vigorously oppose” efforts to unseat her as the district’s second-elected member, she has avoided further comment, saying the suit was “an ongoing legal matter before the courts”.
Repeated efforts by telephone and email to contact Ms Rivers for an explanation have proved fruitless.
Elections officials, meanwhile, said documents relating to Ms Rivers’s March 27 nomination had been sealed after the 22 May national ballot as part of the transfer of election-related materials to one-year storage at the government administration building. “They are public documents until, on 23 May, once the votes have come in, everything is locked down, sealed and placed into storage for a year, then destroyed,” said Supervisor of Elections Kearney Gomez.
The documents, he said, were available only by court order “if a petitioner demands. I expect the judge will now be asking for that,” Mr. Gomez said.
The 12 June petition, filed by John Gordon Hewitt, husband of UDP candidate Velma Powery-Hewitt, who finished fifth in the district, alleges that Ms Rivers, backed by the Coalition for Cayman, did not qualify for nomination under both the constitution and the 2009 Elections Law.
Alleging that Ms Rivers holds both a US passport and had not resided in the Cayman Islands for the mandated seven years prior to her 27 March nomination, Mr. Hewitt asked the court to declare her candidacy “null and void”.
Both issues, he claimed, “had been the subject of much discussion in the public media”, concluding that “it was widely published that Tara Rivers was not qualified to be nominated”.
Mr. Hewitt asked the court to elevate Ms Powery-Hewitt, “being the nominated candidate with the next highest amount of votes” in West Bay, to replace Ms Rivers “as the duly elected member of the Legislative Council for the Electoral District of West Bay.”
Of 14 candidates in the four-seat district, Ms Powery-Hewitt garnered 1,072 votes, trailing fourth-elected member Eugene Ebanks by only 245 ballots. Independent candidate Mervin Smith trailed Ms Powery-Hewitt by only seven votes.
Ms Rivers attended Toronto’s York University business school in 2001 gaining an MBA in 2004, followed by a law degree in 2005. She qualified in both Ontario and New York in 2006. While qualifying in the UK, she worked for London-based Allen & Overy, which also has offices in Canada and New York. She qualified in the Cayman Islands in 2009, joining Conyers Dill & Pearman. It remains unclear, however, how long she may have been a student, exempted under the constitution, or how long she may have been absent prior to her March nomination.
Also unclear is if she completed a candidates’ questionnaire or what she may have reported on that form.
Mr. Gomez told the Caymanian Compass that Returning Officer for West Bay Delano Solomon had accepted Ms Rivers’s March nomination, but was not legally obliged to verify information provided by any nominee. “The nominations are only one day, and it is up to the candidates to prove their qualifications,” he said. “If they provide false information, well, that is provided for in the law.”
With 14 candidates in the district, he said, and only a single day for nominations, any verification efforts were likely to take longer than the time allotted. “He [the returning officer] can question them, but there’s only a single day,” Mr. Gomez said. “With 14 candidates, it would take more than one day for sure.”
Mr. Solomon declined to comment on either Wednesday’s petition or candidate-verification procedures.
“I cannot answer your questions,” he said.
In her Friday statement, Ms Rivers skirted Mr. Hewitt’s allegations, saying she was both shocked and deeply disappointed by the challenge.
“I remain focused on carrying out my duties as minister for education, labour and gender affairs,” she said in a press release. “As your second elected member for West Bay, I would like to clearly state that I intend to vigorously oppose this challenge; I remain committed to fulfilling my term and to serving you to the best of my ability, according to the overwhelming desire of my district and my country.”
Seeking to console “disheartened” supporters, Ms Rivers accused Mr. Hewitt and UDP backers, including attorney Steve McField, of “a campaign to discredit me publicly and distract me from my current responsibilities.
“Your prayers and support are appreciated, and I will endeavour to keep you informed as and when I am able,” she said. “I respectfully ask that each of you remain level-headed and optimistic and allow this to be handled through the appropriate channels, as the law requires.”
Despite Mr. Hewitt’s request that the court elevate Ms Powery-Hewitt to fourth-elected member, Mr. Gomez said two choices loomed.
“It’s up to the courts and the judge,” he said. “There are two options: Either he can go to the national polls and return the runner-up or you can have a by-election.”
Following Ms Rivers’s Friday statement, Mr. McLaughlin, also minister of home and community affairs and PPM leader, volunteered his support of the West Bay legislator.
“I have been made aware that an election petition challenging the legitimacy of the election of Minister Tara Rivers has been filed in the Grand Court by Mr. Gordon Hewitt, husband of Mrs. Velma Hewitt, a candidate in the recent elections in West Bay,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
“It is disappointing and unfortunate that such a challenge is being made at this late stage. These are difficult times for the Cayman Islands and the new government needs to be able to settle in and begin to tackle the many pressing problems it faces without the distraction and uncertainty created by this petition.
“This issue must therefore be resolved expeditiously. I have spoken to Minister Rivers and she has advised me that she intends to vigorously defend her election. I have assured her that she continues to enjoy the confidence and support of the government and of me as premier,” he said.