Bush, as 'witness,' blasts travel and hospitality audit

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.”  

Findings 

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. 

Bush’s concerns 

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.  

Controversy 

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.  

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  1. Come now Mr Bush, these reports have consistently revealed dreadful spending abuse. One of the worst was the 3 week trip by many to an expensive venue which nobody has even attempted to justify. This may be the worst, but there are plenty of examples, and collectively they show first a contempt for care of the public purse, and second, a shameful treatment of the Auditor, without whom these abuses might even be worse!
    You at least should know better, you hold yourself out as a leader, but in my opinion your behaviour and comments fall far short of the requirements. I look forward to the report on the Nation Building fund, though I may grow old in the wait!

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  2. In just a few words, I wonder if the people of Cayman realize that because of the good governance of Mr Bush we have enjoyed the presence of the Rich and famous. People had jobs, people were not loosing their homes and businesses, and your business was flourishing; now we have some of our own people want to exercise judgment Judge and Jury over his head. Yep, and many of the same ones he gave status to, who want to be Boss here is kicking down the milk.

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  3. 10,000 for a retirement party for a former customs officer is in my opinion, over the top and unjustified for the expense. Yes, the custom’s department does bring in millions of dollars of revenue to the country, of which the funds are allocated for various projects, salaries and future planning costs. For a country that small, what makes Mr. Bush feel justified in spending that amount of money? In the US, even when large companies hold retirement parties for their employees, that typically involves buying a cake, providing some refreshments and beverages and everyone wishing that employee well in their future endeavors. I would love to know what that 10,000 was spent on, how many people were in attendance, what food/wine and gifts were provided to that individual which totaled 10,000. In a country with a high level of corruption, a fiscal deficit, excess unemployment and financial management problems – there are far better ways of spending their money other than a lavish party for a former employee. This is just one example of the plethora of issues facing the Cayman government right now. Perhaps new leadership with some financial management will help correct the abuses and problems they are facing.

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  4. The fact that Mr. Bush sees nothing wrong with spending 10k on a retirement party and having 40 individuals attending a promotional trip speaks volumes. These funds are raised from we the taxpayers and that kind of extravagance does not happen in the private sector.

    The country is not rich and Mr. Bush did not sufficiently provide for his own staff. Otherwise why is the civil service pension plan short 200m and their future health care pegged at 1.2b spread over 20-25 years have NOTHING yet to be set aside.

    Pay your bills and provide for promises made firstly, then if you have something left over, then have a party.

    Both political parties have pledged at various times to provide accounts that can be audited, verifiable, and accountable yet we are still well off from being there over a decade later.

    When politicians are called out they either cry foul or don’t sufficiently disclose.

    This is not working. We should expect and demand better. It is our money after all.

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  5. Looks like yet another attack on the Auditor General. As I read the comments of the report these deficiencies in the report are dreadful.
    Rather than criticizing the report Bush should think how he could assist the Government to remedy these issues.
    I take my hat off to the AG and keep up the good work.

    As an aside I am not sure about the comment made in the previous blog about Rich and Famous. They have been coming here since the 60s.Actors, writers and musicians including band leaders such as Moxey Witney and Mitch Miller. All had homes which they used extensively. Of course in those days we were blessed with some of the most competent and hones politicians one could wish for.

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  6. It does seem a little suspect how the information was divulged and how it only focuses on the time Bush was in office. I would really like to see how the PPM would hold up if their administration previous to the UDP was also audited. In my opinion to focus on only one party does not show impartiality on the auditors part and in itself smells of political interference which we know they are capable of.

    Regarding expenses that the UDP had to write off because of a lack of documentation and were charged during the PPM administration. Why would they publicly bash the UDP for this instead of pointing out the that actual charges were made during the previous administration, this again sounds like the whole effort is to smear Bush’s name, So I guess the hunt is not over.

    What I would like to see is a full and impartial audit of the last 8 years covering both administrations, instead of focusing the attention on one. It the PPM have nothing to hide they will gracefully agree to this.

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  7. You politicians have to stop being like little boys and be real men. I would think that the real issues of the audit the world knows about, and the Judge has given his verdict in Mr Bush trial, which will pretty much clear any other person which is involved in the misconduct of GOVERNMENT credit cards abuse. Why don’t you politicians sit down and start making laws and rules to prevent this from happening again. Stop the blame game for your own political gain, because that would fix the problem.

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  8. Now Michael, it isn’t reasonable to suggest that the Auditor has deliberately homed in on the Bush time in office. This is a rolling function thar started long before, and happens now to cover that period. It is of course shameful that these reports take so long to reach us, but why is that? Part of the reason is the dreadful record keeping, and part, I suggest, is a political wish to hold them up.
    There is a bigger sin here, and that is to vilify the man that does the job of protecting us, the public, and in that regard, Bush is undoubtedly at fault.
    As to Bush being responsible for good governance, that is laughable, there are so many instances where his actions cost us dear that it is boring to repeat them.

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  9. I think one of the most disturbing things about Alastair Swarbrick’s current investigations is the contrast between the way he treats purely Caymanian issues with his stance, which has been backed by both the FCO and the Governor’s office, on closing the audit on Operation Tempura/Cealt.

    Mr Swarbrick has been supplied with hard information, sourced from the Metropolitan police, that the 2009 audit had been compromised. Yet in his own words he feels that –

    Based upon the information received by the OAG subsequent to the issuance of the audit report in October 2009 regarding the administration of Operations Tempura and Cealt, the Auditor General has found no concerns with the quality of the information collected during the audit. Any documentation that was requested but not received did not impact on our ability to carry out our audit and report our findings. As a result, it has been determined that there is no requirement to conduct further audit work.

    An interesting response when you bear in mind that the true circumstances surrounding the award of the two contracts, which cost CIG millions, in 2008 had been completely misrepresented during the original audit. Based on the material I have the conclusions of that audit would have been very different if the facts had been known and it’s my opinion that fact hasn’t escaped Mr Swarbrick.

    What it seems to boil down to is there is a very clear agenda here and it doesn’t include risking having to wash the UK’s dirty laundry in public.

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  10. As Bush describes it, he clearly see’s it as nickel and dime stuff.

    The phrase ‘nickel and dimed to death’ is used in companies where small uncontrolled expenses can accrue a to become a significant drain and ultimately cause the demise of the company.

    What is particularly worrying is that all of these government ‘nickel and dime’ expenses end with a comma and three noughts!

    There seems much ‘post ex facto’ justification versus pre planned and approved expense.

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