Committee seeks to determine changes to policy
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said Wednesday that he and certain civil servants were “smeared” in an auditor general’s review of government travel and hospitality expenditures that contained some information he described as “utter rubbish.”
Mr. Bush’s comments came during his appearance as a “witness” before the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee.
Committee chairman Roy McTaggart allowed Mr. Bush’s witness appearance because the audit, conducted in a period between 2009 and 2012, focused on two ministries, one of which was run by then-Premier Bush.
Public Accounts Committee members, including government backbenchers Joey Hew and Winston Connolly, and opposition MLA Capt. Eugene Ebanks, asked few questions of Mr. Bush, allowing him to speak on various sections of the audit for more than an hour Wednesday morning.
While Mr. Bush used his appearance in attempts to defend his former ministry, committee members seemed more interested in addressing what had changed since the problems revealed in the audit were made public.
“What is obvious … is that the full and complete picture is not being given to the public,” Mr. Bush said of the audit. “It causes reputations of civil servants and public officials to become tarnished because of the way it was done.”
Mr. Connolly asked whether Mr. Bush agreed with any of the recommendations made by Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick with regard to policies and procedures for properly recording and justifying travel expenses.
“What I’m concerned about is that, if the auditor general carries out an audit and there are findings for best practice …. the civil service will take [that] on board as being a true reflection of a situation that existed at the time. Can you agree or not with these findings?” Mr. Connolly asked.
“I don’t agree with how he puts his words,” Mr. Bush replied. “To improve the system, yes. But where it’s going to be more cumbersome … then we have to question whether we should.”
The travel and hospitality audit covered only core government expenses in those areas between July 2009 and December 2012, during the period managed by Mr. Bush’s former United Democratic Party administration.
It looked at some $8.6 million in travel and hospitality expenses during the period to determine whether that spending produced value for money. In many cases, it found spending in those areas to be questionable or, at least, not managed properly.
For example, in 80 sample expenditures reviewed by the auditor general, about half lacked necessary supporting records to show what was being paid. In eight of the cases, no supporting records could be found.
In the area of travel advances, some $32,000 provided by government to one employee had to be “written off” because the financial officer in charge of approving the expenses did not know whether the employee had traveled at all and, if he had, could not show what the money had been spent on. A total of $167,000 in travel advances to that particular ministry had to be written off because of similar issues with lack of supporting records.
About $458,000 in travel and hospitality expenses by government were charged to credit cards that were later paid off by finance officers who had not received sufficient receipts to show what the cards had been used to pay for. One minister – who was not identified in the report – apparently self-approved $71,000 in such expenses.
“There is no excuse for the issues we have found and whilst it may be indicative of just poor management and administration, it creates the perception, at least, of the misuse of public funds,” Mr. Swarbrick wrote.
Mr. Bush felt the auditor general’s report was devoid of key specific information, particularly in areas where the auditors were critical of expenditures.
No mention was made in the report, where it pointed out specific instances of questionable expenditure, of who had made those purchases, or even in some cases when the expense was incurred.
“Here we have a report that has basically attacked the two ministries [referring to the former Ministry of Tourism, Financial Services and Development and the former Ministry of District Administration],” he said. “I was the minister of one of them. Who do you think the public is looking at?
“If someone has done wrong, let’s say who it is. Don’t leave a blanket statement and say ‘oh, that’s McKeeva or Juliana O’Connor-Connolly.”
For instance, regarding the section of the report relating to the ministry write-offs of travel advances totaling $167,000, Mr. Bush said those advances were given during a period between 2003 and 2009, a fact he said the audit office failed to disclose.
“Who spent this money, and who was it written off by?” Mr. Bush asked.
In the general review of travel advances, Mr. Bush said the report did not note the sample size of the advances relative to all of the advances that were given during the period. If there were problems with 80 advances, he said, the audit office should state how many total advances were made.
“The audit office gives the impression to the reader that the travel advance system is falling apart,” Mr. Bush said.
Referring to controversial issues raised in the audit, Mr. Bush pointed to the government’s spending for a trip to Panama in 2011 that included more than 40 individuals attending the trade mission.
“This is the equivalent of $1,650 per person, including airfare and hotel,” Mr. Bush said of the Panama trip costs. “This amount surely cannot be seen to be extravagant.”
Moreover, Mr. Bush said the government’s goal at the time was to open Panama as a gateway for Cayman’s business and tourism interests in South America.
“It seems the audit office believes its all right for past and new governors to spent $800,000 … on entertainment for friends and associates, but somehow it’s out of place or mismanagement to take key stakeholders and industry partners to Panama.”
Another area of the audit that peeved the former premier was the identification of $10,000 spent for a retirement party for former Customs Collector Carlon Powery.
“You’re going to tell me that’s out of place? For a department that brings in the most revenue for government?” Mr. Bush asked.
Another issue Mr. Bush raised was what he termed a “quite nasty” statement in the audit regarding what was termed a “prayer meeting” held in West Bay. Mr. Bush said the money was spent on the National Prayer Breakfast, held each year for Legislative Assembly members and senior staff.
“I don’t know when people determined that was a prayer meeting? But they’re trying to make McKeeva Bush look bad as possible before that court case [referring to Mr. Bush’s 2014 criminal trial on corruption-related allegations in the use of his government-issued credit card, for which he was eventually acquitted],” he said.
Mr. Bush’s remarks did not elicit any specific response from the committee members or from Mr. Swarbrick.
The committee continued its hearing on the travel audit past press time on Wednesday.