Top Stories of 2014: Slots, plots and champagne moments: McKeeva Bush trial

Editor’s note: Over the next few days, we will be recounting the Top Ten stories of 2014 in the Cayman Islands. These are the stories that, in the view of Cayman Compass editors, not only “made the headlines” but also had a significant or lasting impact on these islands. 

Details of McKeeva Bush’s late-night casino gambling were overshadowed by former governor Duncan Taylor’s penchant for a “quiet bottle of bubbly” in a headline-grabbing trial that had more twists and turns than a John Grisham thriller. 

Cayman Islands residents monitored the reports as the events leading to Mr. Bush’s arrest and removal as Premier were slowly revealed in the month-long trial, culminating with his acquittal on all charges amid jubilant scenes on the courthouse steps. 

In a dramatic moment midway through the trial, Mr. Bush’s defense team produced a series of emails from Mr. Taylor to a foreign office official named Tony, which they suggested showed there was a conspiracy to bring down the former Premier. 

In the emails, the then-governor appears to show an apparent eagerness to have Mr. Bush arrested before the general election. He says he will enjoy a “quiet bottle of bubbly” when charges are brought, commenting that it will be a “good day for Cayman.” 

The relevance of the governor’s emails to Mr. Bush’s guilt or innocence was questioned by both the prosecution and by the judge. But the revelations contained in the messages reverberated beyond the courtroom, with supporters of the United Democratic Party leader seizing on Mr. Taylor’s commentary as evidence of interference in Cayman’s domestic politics by the U.K.’s top official in the territory.  

Mr. Taylor had no comment after the trial, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office defended his actions, saying the governor had a duty to ensure allegations of wrongdoing were properly investigated. 

The governor’s emails aside, the jury had a number of complex issues to grapple with in the first trial of its kind in the Cayman Islands. 

Mr. Bush formally entered not guilty pleas on Sept. 9 to 11 charges related to claims he charged nearly $500,000 on his government credit card at hotels in Florida, Las Vegas and the Bahamas. 

He was charged with six counts of misconduct in public office, contrary to Common Law, and five counts of breach of trust by a Member of the Legislative Assembly, under the Anti-Corruption Law.  

It took nearly a week to find a jury that was deemed sufficiently independent and free of political bias to try the former Premier, one of the most well-known men in the Cayman Islands.  

In a two-day opening statement, Queen’s Counsel Duncan Penny outlined the crown’s case against Mr. Bush, detailing late-night gambling sprees on casino slot machines. He said records showed that the then-Premier had lost around US$272,000 on slot machines on the 11 trips covered by the indictment.  

The prosecutor cross-referenced casino cash machine records with details of Mr. Bush’s slot-machine losses, recorded on his casino loyalty card. He told the jury the only conceivable conclusion was that Mr. Bush used the money – including nearly US$50,000 drawn on his government card – for gambling. 

In a single four-day trip to Las Vegas, he said, Mr. Bush lost US$60,000 in slots. He went on to claim that US$10,000 of expenses racked up on the government card were not repaid until Mr. Bush realized he was being investigated more than two years later. 

As the trial continued, a succession of civil service witnesses testified that there was no policy in place banning personal spending on government credit cards, so long as the funds were repaid. 

Several witnesses in the finance ministry described a system in which Mr. Bush would highlight his credit card statements indicating personal expenditure and write a check for the amount owed. They acknowledged that he had sometimes given them signed blank checks and asked them to work out how much he owed. 

It was accepted by the defense that Mr. Bush had failed to repay some $10,000 in personal expenses on his credit card for two years. But this was characterized as an oversight that came about because staff in the ministry of finance were overworked and unable to keep up with the established repayment system. 

In his closing speech, prosecutor Mr. Penny urged the jury to convict Mr. Bush, telling them it should have been blindingly obvious to the then-Premier that his government card was not intended to be used in casinos, regardless of any policy. 

Mr. Bush’s attorney countered in his own closing argument, stating that Mr. Bush’s actions had been within the rules at the time and that the only policy on government credit cards was that if you used it for personal expenses, you had to pay it back. 

Finally, on Oct. 10, in front of a packed but silent, public gallery, the jury foreman delivered the verdict on all 11 charges: “Not guilty.” 

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Supporters rally around McKeeva Bush outside the courthouse after the not guilty verdict is delivered in October. – Photo: Jewel Levy

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