Minister had UK work permit

Tara Rivers claims her time abroad was spent studying and training

Abraham-Tara-Rivers-Lead

Chief Justice Anthony Smellie on Thursday heard expert testimony that US law did not require oaths of allegiance from passport applicants, suggesting that Cabinet Minister Tara Rivers’s possession of an American travel document did not compromise her election qualifications in the Cayman Islands. 

David Kole, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University in Washington DC, told the court that since 1972, US law has prohibited oaths of allegiance in exchange for grant of a US passport. 

“By birth, everyone owes allegiance to the United States, but beyond that, a passport does not mean you have allegiance. You can hate the United States and oppose everything it stands for, but you are entitled to a passport,” he said. 

His comments came on the second day of a Grand Court hearing of a petition to contest the 22 May general election in which Ms Rivers was elected to a Legislative Assembly seat representing West Bay. On 28 May, Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin named her minister of education, employment and gender affairs. 

The Grand Court subsequently received a petition challenging her residential and nationality qualifications to contest those election results. Filed by John Gordon Hewitt, husband of West Bay candidate Velma Powery-Hewitt, fifth place finisher in the district, the challenge sought to overturn Ms Rivers’s selection and elevate Ms Powery-Hewitt to the seat. 

Ms Rivers resided overseas between 2006 and 2009. 

On Thursday, she sought to establish that her London legal firm Allen & Overy was an educational institution, one of the exemptions provided in the constitution, and said her sole allegiance was to the Cayman Islands. 

“I always considered my time away as studying or training. Allen & Overy had very structured programmes and, in my mind, it was always for purposes of education and training,” she said. 

Attorney for the petitioner, Abraham Dabdoub, acting for local lawyer Steve McField, challenged her use of her US passport.  

“You used your US passport to travel and filled in an immigration form that asked about citizenship,” he said.  

“Yes,” Ms Rivers answered. “I am a US citizen. But in Cayman I never filled in an immigration form because I am a Caymanian.” 

She rejected Mr. Dabdoub’s claim that she had always declared herself a US citizen when she travelled, adding that she had only entered Canada to gain a student visa. She acknowledged carrying both a UK and British overseas territory passport, but denied any allegiance to the Queen of England.  

In his testimony, Mr. Kole dispelled suggestions that use of a US passport connoted any allegiance to Washington, describing the difference between owing fundamental allegiance by virtue of birth and declaring an oath of allegiance by virtue of naturalisation. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the Grand Court heard prolonged cross-examination of Ms Rivers, during which Mr. Dabdoub questioned Ms Rivers about her assertions she was fully qualified to contest the springtime ballot. 

“You must be domiciled and resident in the Cayman Islands for seven years at the date of your nomination,” Mr. Dabdoub said, establishing the legal grounds of the challenge, “and not exceed 400 days of absence”. 

He said Ms Rivers was an associate at Allen & Overy, collected a salary for practising law and carried a work permit, contradicting claims she had been a student during the period. 

“They are not an educational institution,” he said, referring to the firm. “You were employed and paid a salary?” 

She disagreed with Mr. Dabdoub, calling the statement “a matter of your interpretation“, saying she was in an educational and training programme comprising “lectures, workshops, seminars and other instructional courses” at the company. 

“But those lectures were not intended for those not employed at the firm,” he countered. “They regarded you as an employee and you received a salary. They had training sessions for employees and not for non-employees. 

“The courses were to assist you to assist clients at Allen & Overy, not others. All are in-house items set up to hone the skills of their attorneys, partners and associates. 

“If they have associates they feel do not fully understand, then they give training and lectures, but not to go work with other firms,” he said, pointing to her previous court affidavits, none of which claimed the firm was an educational institution. 

Ms Rivers acknowledged the lectures and other courses were delivered by Allen & Overy employees, but said the goal “had always been” to prepare her for Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test exams. 

“It offered lots of training,” she said, while acknowledging her position “did not require a student visa. I had a work permit”. 

Mr. Dabdoub on Wednesday also challenged her 27 March decision not to sign a voluntary form for her nomination as an election candidate, citing an Elections Law clause that falsifying a document is an offence. 

Claiming she was fully qualified to run, Ms Rivers said the form was “presented at the time as a voluntary document, not a required document. I opted not to sign it and handed it back. I did what was required under the law”. 

“She refused to sign it,” Mr. Dabdoub said, claiming that “it required you to state that you had no other passport. You knew that you did, so you refused to sign”. 

The US-born Ms Rivers emphatically rejected the assertion, saying she had filled out all required nomination forms. She said she had not been familiar with parallel circumstances regarding Bodden Town candidate Richard Christian, whose US passport disqualified his entry into the May race. 

Mr. Christian’s withdrawal turned contingent upon his past application for a US passport, raising questions of allegiance to a political entity other than the Cayman Islands, Mr. Dabdoub said. 

“You have control over whether you apply for a US passport. You do so by virtue of your own act,” he said. “There is a declaration you have to sign, [and] by signing, you acknowledge your allegiance to the United States.” 

Ms Rivers again rejected the charge, saying “I do not accept that,” and calling her application “no more than an administrative matter”, facilitating her ability to travel, while repeating earlier statements that Cayman was her sole home and sole allegiance. 

The case has attracted a lot of attention locally and the court has been filled to capacity on both days. 

The hearing, initially scheduled for two days and due to be completed Thursday afternoon, may extend into Friday. 

Abraham-Tara-Rivers-Story

Attorney Abraham Dabdoub, left, and petitioner John Gordon Hewitt outside the Law Courts building in George Town.
Photo: Chris Court
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