Minister's phone charges withheld from release

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. 

1 COMMENT

  1. What are we saying here; that a Gag Order has been placed on the release of records by the info. manager, because there would be prejudice in security defense or international relations of the Islands?. Why wasn’t this thought of in the Bush saga when …. Emails, Cell phone, house phone, desk drawers, bureau and dresser drawers, credit cards, bumpers and rumbles were turned inside out, hand washed and hung out to dry on every clothes line in Cayman and the world to see.

  2. The whole comment from the information manager about denying the release of those expense records because he believed disclosure would prejudice the security, defense or international relations of the islands was no different than how the US government always says we can’t release the information because it’s a matter of national security. That’s always the excuse governments use to keep things hush, expect to hear statements like these more and more.

    Regarding the data on his personal phone, The minute he stated that he used the phone for Government business it gave them the right to access the data on it, confiscate it, wipe it or do what ever they need to do to secure any potential government related data that may or may not be on the device.

    It’s clear that Mr Bodden probably feels that he is above these new compliance policies being followed and I’m sure that plenty of CIG’s managers and employees also feel the same way. This is a good example of how things used to be clash with how things are now. Mr Bodden and a lot of them are probably used to are expects to be able to just say a number and have it reimbursed unquestioned. There’s most likely plenty of submitted expenses being rejected lately now that qualified people are looking closely at the situation.

    Good catch Ms Ahearn.

  3. This whole Ozzie embarrassment to the Islands is doing more damage to the security of the Islands, and trying to cover this issue up. I think that you Mr Premier has the final say in this matter. I’m hoping that if you don’t do what is wright for the Islands, that this would be held over your head until. Premier remember that the people didn’t put you in office to protect your friends.

  4. I’m not sure which is worse,

    The Xenophobic nature of the comments,
    The profanity,
    Or the fact that the minister genuinely believed he was entitled to half his private phone charges, without any supporting evidence or good reason, when he was already provided with a CIG phone. I’m sure nobody would begrudge a minister making the occasional personal call on a government phone but this is taking it to a whole new level.

    It would be like asking for the people of Cayman to pay for half his annual underwear costs, based on the fact that he is wearing them while at work and a government minister should surely not be attending meetings without being suitably ‘briefed’ (pun intended – underwear vs. documents)

    The other thing is that a good financial officer will have already arranged a group plan for the myriad of phones in use by CIG, the cost per user should already be dramatically below what a member of the public, or even a minister, would pay. In that context the ‘half’ of a ‘personal’ plan will likely exceed the cost of the ENTIRE CIG phone issued to him!

    There also the ‘prejudice the security’ issue – Ooops, A real double edged sword there – it cuts both ways.
    These days, Data security is a serious issue, just ask Sony!
    Did the minister consult the IT department to make sure that by using his personal phone both he and the government were protected to the same level as if he were using the internally issued one?

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