Nation Building Fund probe under way
A number of Cayman Islands churches have been requested to give a formal accounting of money they received from the government’s former Nation Building Fund, the Cayman Compass has learned.
Several church leaders contacted this week, including representatives of the Wesleyan Holiness Church in West Bay and Church of God in Frank Sound and Bodden Town, confirmed they received correspondence from Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick’s office within the past several weeks.
The letters were sent separately to every church in the islands that received money in Nation Building Fund grants from the previous United Democratic Party and People’s National Alliance government administrations. The letters all concern different grants but essentially ask church leaders to inform the auditor general how the money they received was spent.
Officials with the auditor general’s office confirmed Wednesday that they were conducting a value-for-money review of the cash paid out of the Nation Building Fund between late 2009 and early 2013.
In order for the investigation to proceed in this case, special authorization had to be given by Governor Helen Kilpatrick because auditors were looking into money spent by nongovernment entities.
Under Section 60 of the Public Management and Finance Law, the auditor general may pursue such matters “if he is authorized in writing to do so by the governor in the public interest.”
The law allows auditors to conduct investigations into the “financial management or affairs of persons, companies and bodies” other than governmental entities once written approval has been given.
Former Premier McKeeva Bush, whose administration initiated the Nation Building Fund disbursements, said Tuesday that he was aware several churches had received correspondence from the auditor general’s office regarding the government grants.
Mr. Bush said he believed the probe by auditors was another attempt by the gubernatorial-appointed office to smear him prior to the start of his criminal trial, which is expected later this year.
“That auditor general received a contract extension so he could carry out [former Governor] Duncan Taylor’s agenda,” Mr. Bush said. “They’re doing all they can to try and influence a jury before my trial.”
When contacted Wednesday, the auditor general’s office did not respond to Mr. Bush’s allegations.
Allegations of corruption surrounding the Nation Building Fund disbursements from the previous United Democratic Party government have swirled for years in the public domain.
Finance Minister Marco Archer said during the 2013 general election campaign that church grants from the fund were more than questionable.
“Absolutely, unequivocally, I believe that the money that was given to those churches amounts to nothing more than corruption,” he said during a candidate debate in early 2013. “If you look at the way the money was given, it was going to select churches. It was not given publicly, it was given under the table.”
Mr. Bush has denied such allegations on many occasions and did so again this week.
“There is nothing wrong with government giving money to church and community programs,” he said.
A Compass review of grants from the Nation Building Fund between December 2009 and June 2012 found that a total of $9.5 million was spent, with $4.6 million of that going to churches or religious groups.
According to government records, of the $4.6 million, about half went to two churches, Wesleyan Holiness in West Bay ($1.3 million) and the Church of God in Bodden Town ($1 million).
In 2011, Wesleyan Holiness received planning permission to build a $2 million, two-story church hall with classrooms and apartments next to the existing church on North West Point Road. The church hall has not been built. Church of God Bodden Town was in the process of building a “multipurpose hall” intended to serve as a hurricane shelter on Shamrock Road. The estimated cost of the building is just under $4 million, as reported in early 2011. Work on the more than 20,000-square-foot building began in 2010 and has proceeded sporadically since then.
Other groups receiving Nation Building Fund money include: Church of God West Bay ($450,000), Seventh-day Adventist Church West Bay ($275,000), Light of the World Christian Fellowship ($180,000), All Nation United Pentecostal ($175,000), New Testament Church West Bay ($130,000), 90 & 9 Outreach Ministry ($125,000), Church of God Frank Sound ($125,000), Wesleyan Holiness Church George Town ($122,585), Covenant Moravian Church ($104,991) and Seventh-day Adventist Church ($100,000).
A number of churches have since returned either a significant portion or all of the Nation Building Fund money they received.
In July 2013 it was announced that Wesleyan Holiness Church in West Bay returned nearly $730,000 of the remaining funds it received from the grant.
Wesleyan also provided a detailed accounting of the cash from the Nation Building Fund grant it had already spent, including $250,000 for land adjacent to the church. Officials said the rest of the money from the grant would be returned to government, including the land or its current value.
Prior to Wesleyan Holiness Church returning its funds, four other Cayman Islands churches had returned Nation Building grant funds. They included: Hillside Chapel in Cayman Brac ($50,000), Red Bay Church of God Holiness ($108,105), Webster Memorial United Church ($18,300), and Fellowship Baptist church ($45,000).