Stating that he was responsible for 14 different areas in the former Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development, Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush lambasted his critics late Wednesday concerning travel expenditures revealed in an auditor general’s report.
Mr. Bush said that $8.6 million in government travel and hospitality expenses between 2009 and 2012 “seemed like a lot,” but he indicated that the audit hadn’t put that amount in any context. “[The People’s Progressive Movement government] spent over $11 million in 2005-2009 and $5 million on tourism and finance alone,” Mr. Bush said.
The former premier also denied specific information contained in the report about various hospitality and other expenditures made between 2009 and 2012 by the premier’s office and the Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development for which he had responsibility.
“I had no retirement party for anyone,” Mr. Bush said. “Nor did I have any party for myself. All I did was for other people, but no retirement or [birthday] parties that I know about.”
The auditor general’s report specifically identifies two expenses: $9,965 for a “retirement party for a senior official” expended by the Office of the Premier during the government’s 2012/13 budget year, and $3,398 for a “birthday lunch for former minister of MFTD [Minister of Finance, Tourism and Development]” expended by that ministry during the government’s 2011/12 budget year.
Audit Principal Martin Ruben said he couldn’t explain why Mr. Bush had sought to deny those expenses. “We take the information right out of the government expenditure records,” Mr. Ruben said. “We have confirmed the factual accuracy of those reports [with the government].”
The opposition leader has accused the current Progressives-led government of hypocrisy on travel-related items as well. “The extent that they went to berate and complain and point fingers, making ‘mountains out of molehills,’” Mr. Bush wrote in a letter to the Compass last September. “With just four months in office, [Premier Alden McLaughlin] and his team are already on the road quite a bit.”
Premier McLaughlin – who was also a leading figure in the former PPM government between 2005 and 2009 – has said that Mr. Bush is missing the point about official travel and denied being hypocritical.
“I have never said the premier and ministers don’t need to travel,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “Of course we do. What I was and remain critical of was the extravagance of Mr. Bush. We do not need large entourages, first-class seats, limousines, security details and five-star hotels to do our jobs properly.
“Nor do we need to throw lavish parties at casinos or otherwise. I will not allow any member of government to go good-timing on the government’s tab.”
Mr. Bush disagreed about the need for security services and transport in certain circumstances. “[The minister must be] ready, physically and mentally, after a three, eight, or 10 hour flying time to attend the meetings, immediately if necessary,” he said.
The former premier also encouraged Cayman Islands residents to look at what his government achieved for the money spent.
“I got Shetty [referring to the Health City Cayman Islands project, the brainchild of Dr. Devi Shetty], Cayman Enterprise City and a 12 percent increase in stayover tourism,” Mr. Bush said. “[The former government [boosted our international reputation and our public finance and Moody’s [Investors Service] then kept our [bond] rating to Aa3.
“I took us off the [Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s] grey list and signed international agreements with the biggest G8 countries,” he continued. “All that made Chamber members money!”
In Thursday’s editions of the Cayman Compass, the Chamber of Commerce Council took both the former United Democratic Party government and the central government service to task over the auditor’s travel report, which revealed, among other things, $400,000 in spending on limousine and SUV rentals in the U.S. by the Department of Tourism, thousands of dollars spent on parties, sometimes for a single individual by Mr. Bush’s ministry and unexplained credit card charges of $71,000 that were approved by the same government minister who spent the money.
Mr. Bush did not specifically address any of the items brought up in Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick’s report in his statement to the Compass on Wednesday.
“The business community and the general public have faced repeated increases in government fees which resulted in higher cost of doing business and the cost of living while our public officials at various levels were spending our money on lavish trips and alcohol filled receptions,” Chamber President Johann Moxam said. “This is unconscionable and unacceptable.” Mr. Bush said that Chamber members should know that “you have to spend money to make money.”
“So what did they want me to do? Walk to Germany and Holland, Paris, etc., and stay at the Red Roof Inn?” Mr. Bush said.