The chairman of the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee has defended his decision not to call certain witnesses who had direct knowledge of millions of dollars of government travel and hospitality expenditures that auditors said were questionable.
George Town MLA Roy McTaggart said, on the advice of auditors – as is common practice – that he did not call either former Premier McKeeva Bush or Speaker of the House Juliana O’Connor-Connolly to testify before the committee last week, even though their former ministries bore the brunt of the criticism in the audit. The committee also did not call former ministry chief officers Kearney Gomez and Carson Ebanks, both of whom have since retired from the civil service.
Mr. Bush, who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee, demanded that he be heard as a witness in the proceedings, to which Mr. McTaggart acquiesced. However, Ms. O’Connor-Connolly and the chief officers made no such demands and did not appear before the committee. Ms. O’Connor-Connolly has never responded to Cayman Compass requests for comment about the audit, which looked at, among other things, her ministry’s expenditures of $34,000 over three years on Cayman Brac hotel rooms and tens of thousands more on a trip to Doha, Qatar, for a postal services conference.
The travel and hospitality audit looked at some 80 sample expenditures reviewed by the auditor general, about half of which 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.
The audit found “very little information” about some $1.5 million government spent on hospitality during the period.
The report did not mention any civil servants or elected ministers by name. However, Mr. Bush noted that most people familiar with Cayman politics would know who headed the ministries at the relevant time. “Who do you think the public is looking at?” he asked.
Mr. McTaggart said he thought queries concerning why then-Minister O’Connor-Connolly, then-Premier Bush and the chief officers of their ministries weren’t called were valid. However, he said he did not believe it was the Public Accounts Committee’s role to fact-check the auditor general or to provide political theater for the general public.
“Is it the responsibility of the PAC to understand or elicit that type of information?” Mr. McTaggart asked. “The report speaks for itself. The question for the PAC really is ‘what is the civil service doing to ensure these things don’t happen again?’ I don’t know that it is my responsibility or the PAC’s responsibility to sit down and hold an inquiry to determine whether what [Ms. O’Connor-Connolly] did was factual. It just turns into a political bum-fight. That’s not the purpose of the PAC.”
Mr. McTaggart said his view is that the Public Accounts Committee should examine auditor’s reports objectively, make recommendations, and ensure those recommendations are carried out.
“Personally, I think there’s still work to be done,” Mr. McTaggart said. “I questioned the deputy governor on [the existence of a hospitality policy for government] and he assured us it would shortly be rolled out. The premier has insisted that the travel policy … is to be adopted by ministers and councilors as well.”
Some questions still linger about how the travel policy will be enforced if a government minister or MLA refuses to follow it. Planning Ministry Chief Officer Alan Jones told the Public Accounts Committee during his testimony that while a policy on reporting official travel expenses has been in effect in the civil service since mid-2013, the policy applies only voluntarily to government’s elected ministers.
Mr. McTaggart said if he fell afoul of the travel policy, he would fully expect disciplinary action to come from the premier. Asked if he thought the political cost of doing that might be too high for the premier, he responded: “He could very well fire me. I’m responsible to him.”
Johann Moxam, past president of the Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that the PAC and its members “failed” to use an opportunity to hold government officials and the former deputy premier to account.
“The question to be answered by each member is why?” Mr. Moxam said. “When there are no questions asked nor consequences for mismanagement and waste of public funds by any government official, there can be no mystery to why nothing changes. Unfortunately, the charade of effective governance, transparency and accountability continues with the people and business community left to ultimately pay the costs.
“Our leaders must move past the rhetoric and excuses. There must be one standard for accountability applicable to all persons in a leadership role in this country. We must not pick and choose who we hold accountable in government … there must be no exceptions.”