McKeeva Bush trial: Finance officer flagged ‘unusual’ withdrawals

The chief financial officer in McKeeva Bush’s ministry flagged “unusual” cash withdrawals made on his government credit card with her superiors and was told there was “no policy” against such transactions “as long as it was paid back.” 

Josephine Sambula testified in Grand Court on Wednesday that she had alerted Carson Ebanks, her chief officer at the time, when she first noticed cash withdrawals on Mr. Bush’s credit card statement in July 2009, just after he took over as government leader. 

Ms. Sambula acknowledged that she had annotated an online printout of Mr. Bush’s statement with question marks and other notes next to specific transactions, including withdrawals through Global Cash Access – the system of cash advance machines that the court had earlier heard was used in casinos around the U.S. 

She said she had raised the issue with Mr. Ebanks “because it was unusual” and had been told by the chief officer that it was OK so long as the money was paid back.  

She said she had not raised the issue again and from that point on, she agreed, a system had been in place where Mr. Bush’s credit card statements were sent to him along with a memo asking for him to highlight personal payments and make reimbursements. 

Mr. Bush is accused of using his government credit card to withdraw nearly US$50,000 in casinos in Florida, Las Vegas and the Bahamas and using at least some of that money to gamble.  

Ms. Sambula, giving evidence Wednesday as Mr. Bush’s trial on charges of abuse of power and breach of the public trust entered a third week, told how a record-keeping system had also been set up to allow Mr. Bush to submit signed documents attesting that expenses incurred on overseas trips were for official use, instead of submitting receipts. 

“When the premier first started using his card, it was difficult to get receipts. Mr. Bush is forgetful. Keeping receipts really isn’t something he was good at,” she said. 

She said she believed this policy was used only for Mr. Bush, though under cross-examination she acknowledged that documents produced by the defense suggested the chief officer in the ministry had also been allowed to submit signed statements in lieu of receipts on at least two occasions. 

She said Mr. Bush had either produced such statements to say his expenses were official or made repayments for expenses, which he identified as personal on his government credit card statements, in response to memos from her department. 

She accepted that the finance department of the ministry had been understaffed during 2010 and that memos to Mr. Bush about his credit card statements had become less frequent. 

She said she was unaware of claims that Mr. Bush had signed blank checks for his staff to fill in to repay his expenses. But when she was shown three repayment checks from April and June of 2010, she acknowledged that, although she recognized Mr. Bush’s signature, the figures were written out in someone else’s handwriting. 

She said the handwriting was “too neat” to be Mr. Bush’s. 

Ms. Sambula also testified that she had attempted a “reconciliation” of personal expenditure and repayments on Mr. Bush’s credit card on Nov. 5, 2012, after being asked to provide records for the police investigation. 

She said she discovered at that point that Mr. Bush owed around CI$9,000 to the government, stemming from personal expenditure on his card in 2010. 

“Normally, he would have paid it back when we provided him with the memos. I spoke to Wendy (Manzanares) and she said she had delivered the memo to Jodie (Mr. Bush’s personal assistant Jodie Whittaker), but she was not sure he got it.”  

Ms. Sambula said she had spoken to Mr. Bush on Nov. 6 about the money owed and he had “quickly paid it back,” sending his driver to the “credit union” to get a check. 

Ms. Sambula also gave evidence that she had sent a memo to staff in her ministry in April 2009 – prior to Mr. Bush taking office – about changes to regulations about government travel. The memo included a section which stated: “Credit cards must be used for official purposes only,” and indicated that receipts would be required for any official expenditure. 

“In April 2009, was it your understanding that the position on government credit cards was – anything goes, so long as you pay it back?” prosecutor Duncan Penny, QC, asked. 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Ms. Sambula replied.  

Ms. Sambula is the last of the prosecution witnesses to take the stand. The trial continues Thursday.