Credit card abuse: The story behind the stories

Sometimes, good reporting results in no story at all. Other times it results in a very different story than what was initially expected.

Any credible investigation or research effort — whether conducted by scientists, police or reporters — starts off with the formation of a “hypothesis” or “operational theory,” essentially a “best guess” of what took place. The hypothesis is then measured against the findings from the inquiry. The facts serve to support, fail to support, or outright contradict the theory, which is then modified as necessary.

When the Cayman Compass first obtained more than 400 pages of open records on government-issued credit cards, our hypothesis was that the documents would illustrate a widespread pattern of abuse, where officials routinely put personal purchases (importantly, without subsequent reimbursement) on the taxpayers’ tab; however, the results of our investigation, so far, suggest that is not the case.

Many transactions appear to be personal but, based on conversations with the government cardholders who made them, almost all were related to government business.

Further, in some instances, government credit cards were used to purchase personal items and services (for convenience while traveling), but restitution was made to government upon their return to the island.

The topic became a cause célèbre in the Cayman Islands last week when Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush appeared as a guest on Rooster Radio’s morning talk show. The dialogue on the show would have led any casual listener, ourselves included, to believe that widespread credit card abuse was taking place.

Later, a local weekly newspaper published a story (stripped of proper names) that alleged — in the first sentence — “outright abuse of government credit cards by some ministers and senior government officials” — beneath a front page headline proclaiming, “Rampant credit card misuse in Govt.”

Let’s reflect on the dangers inherent in making judgments in situations such as these without doing the requisite research and reporting (and the reporting must include contacting each official involved for their explanation of the credit card charges; the Compass did that).

Publishing a story containing even a suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of a public official can result in enormous reputational damage to the individual and exposure to the media house to libel or defamation lawsuits. We are aware that at least one individual named on the talk show has retained legal counsel.

The records provided to us on the credit card spending are woefully incomplete. They are the fruits of an FOI request by a private citizen (not affiliated with the Compass) and cover only nine individuals.

As a follow-up, the Compass is requesting similar records for every government credit card (about 50 of them) in use from 2005 to the present.

The pattern that does emerge from some of the credit card statements we have already examined is one of fully sanctioned government spending on travel and entertainment, resulting in enormous bills for business-class travel, first-class wining and dining, and accommodations at world-class hotels, which might be regarded as extravagant.

More on that to come.