A legislative review of government travel and entertainment spending during the previous administration will prove “difficult” for witnesses appearing before the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee Wednesday, according to its chairman.
George Town MLA Roy McTaggart said Tuesday that, if Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush – who is a member of the accounts committee – attends the 9 a.m. meeting, those called to testify may find it hard to speak freely. Mr. Bush confirmed Tuesday that he would definitely attend the meeting.
“It’s going to be difficult for people appearing before the committee to speak their minds,” Mr. McTaggart said. “I think it will be hard to have a fair and impartial hearing.”
The Public Accounts Committee is meeting to review a 2014 report from the auditor general’s office that revealed hundreds of thousands – if not millions of dollars – were spent on, among other things, months-long hotel room stays, limo rentals for government officials who were on vacation and other items left unexplained.
The audit of nearly $8.6 million in Cayman Islands government travel and hospitality expenses over three years was presented to the Anti-Corruption Commission for further review.
Some of the expenditures in the report were unaccounted for and in other cases, Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick said, information regarding the travel or hospitality spending was so incomplete that auditors could not make sense of it.
The value-for-money audit focused on two government ministries, the former Ministry of District Administration, Works, Lands and Agriculture, run by then-Deputy Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, and the former Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development run by former Premier McKeeva Bush. Those two ministries were collectively responsible for about 70 percent of the travel and hospitality-related spending in central government between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2012.
“[There is] the high likelihood that the government mishandled significant amounts of public resources,” Mr. Swarbrick said. “Furthermore, monitoring and reporting of these transactions by management was virtually nonexistent.”
Ms. O’Connor-Connolly has never commented on the audit publicly, but Mr. Bush blasted the audit in June 2014, stating that he believed its release – three months before his criminal trial – was orchestrated to sway the opinion of a local jury.
Mr. Bush said at this time that $8.6 million in government travel and hospitality expenses between 2009 and 2012 “seemed like a lot,” but he indicated that the audit had not put that amount in any context. “[The People’s Progressive Movement government] spent over $11 million in 2005-2009 and $5 million on tourism and finance alone,” Mr. Bush said.
The former premier also denied specific information contained in the report about various hospitality and other expenditures made between 2009 and 2012 by the premier’s office and the Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development for which he had responsibility.
“I had no retirement party for anyone,” Mr. Bush said. “Nor did I have any party for myself. All I did was for other people, but no retirement or [birthday] parties that I know about.”
The auditor general’s report specifically identifies two expenses: $9,965 for a “retirement party for a senior official” expended by the Office of the Premier during the government’s 2012/13 budget year, and $3,398 for a “birthday lunch for former minister of MFTD [Minister of Finance, Tourism and Development]” expended by that ministry during the government’s 2011/12 budget year.
Audit Principal Martin Ruben said he couldn’t explain why Mr. Bush had sought to deny those expenses. “We take the information right out of the government expenditure records,” Mr. Ruben said. “We have confirmed the factual accuracy of those reports [with the government].”
Mr. Bush has previously rejected calls by Mr. McTaggart to step down from the Public Accounts Committee while reports concerning his former administration were heard. Mr. Bush said that the accounts committee should be chaired by a member of the opposition benches, which Mr. McTaggart is not.
“Roy McTaggart and the PPM are in breach of this important democratic benchmark,” Mr. Bush said. “For them to come now with their political shenanigans of saying I’m in conflict for openly criticizing the auditor for his unfairness, is purely an action taken for political trickery and vindictiveness.”