Open records, transparency issues raised
Although emails between Cayman Islands Minister Osbourne Bodden and his former chief officer were released last week under the Freedom of Information Law, other information – including the subject of those emails and specific charges to Mr. Bodden’s cellphone – was not.
The emails revealed communications between Mr. Bodden and Health Ministry Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn about the minister’s personal cellphone bill, for which he sought at least 50 percent reimbursement for the phone being used for “government business.” The discussions ended in a shocking verbal tirade against Ms. Ahearn in Mr. Bodden’s office on Dec. 10. The incident, in which 20 to 30 government staffers overheard curse words and personal insults hurled at Ms. Ahearn, eventually led to a Cabinet reshuffle and responsibilities for public health and the George Town landfill being taken away from Mr. Bodden.
The second part of the Cayman Compass open records request sought “a copy of the minister’s credit card expenses and other expenses for which he claimed reimbursement dated from July 1, 2014 to present.”
The information manager for the ministry denied the release of those expense records because he believed disclosure would “prejudice the security, defense or international relations of the islands” and would also “prejudice, or would be likely to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs.”
The Compass has appealed the information manager’s ruling.
In the emails obtained by the Compass, Ms. Ahearn noted that reimbursement of Mr. Bodden’s personal cellphone charges was not a simple or straightforward matter. Ms. Ahearn noted that the minister already had a Cayman Islands government cellphone, which was able to receive emails, and that there should be “minimal/no need for your personal phone plan data to be used for your CIG email/official business.” She also noted that the personal phone bills presented for payment had not been itemized in a way that auditors could easily identify which calls or uses were personal and which were for government business.
“An added complication is that you have indicated an estimated percentage of costs that you believe are official that you should be reimbursed for and we do not really have any basis for that estimation,” Ms. Ahearn wrote.
The exact amount for which the minister was seeking reimbursement was not revealed in the emails.
Data collected by the ministry indicated that Mr. Bodden’s government cellphone was being used to receive data at around the same time his personal phone was being used “for the periods in question.”
Ms. Ahearn and the chief financial officer spoke to other ministries about how they had handled similar situations. She said they were advised that other government ministries and portfolios would reimburse only an employee’s personal phone for periods during which the government-provided phone was out of service or not working.
The issue also raises questions about whether an elected official or senior civil servant’s personal phone records can be accessed, assuming their devices were being used for government business. This question has yet to be explored in a request via the Cayman Islands Freedom of Information Law.
The Compass discovered in 2012, after a separate open records request, that at least one government agency – the Department of Tourism – did not keep tabs on emails sent on government computers using private email accounts. Neither does the department keep track of text messages sent from government phones.
According to the response received in the 2012 request: “The Department of Tourism does not track or retain e-mails that have been sent to or from a Web-based e-mail address such as gmail.com, hotmail.com, etc., unless those e-mails were sent to or from the Department of Tourism’s domain; caymanislands.ky. The Department of Tourism also does not track or retain text messages or BlackBerry messages sent to or from government cell phones or from cell phones on wireless plans paid for by government.”
The legislation governing the preservation of government documents defines a “public record” very broadly. According to the National Archive and Public Records Law, a public record is “information, in any form, created, received, or maintained by a public agency in the course of, or as evidence of, a transaction or activity effected or undertaken in the conduct of its business or affairs.”
According to this definition, if a civil servant or public official were to use a personal email account in order to conduct government business, those emails would be public records. Similarly, if a civil servant or public official were to conduct government business by way of text messages, those text messages would be public records.