Payers believed Cayman status scheme was legitimate, jury hears

The first Crown witness completed her evidence on Friday in the trial of Paul Anthony Hume Ebanks, who has pleaded not guilty to obtaining property – over $167,000 – by falsely representing that various sums were required payments for legitimate grants of status or permanent residence or, in one case, the award of a government contract.

Siri Russell was questioned by defense attorney Laurence Aiolfi and said she remembered that there was “a large grant of status” – about 2,000 people – when McKeeva Bush was Cayman’s “premier” in 2003. She agreed that the mass grant of status back then had led her to believe Ebanks in 2012 when he told her there was a scheme to grant status or permanent residency so that more people would be able to vote in the upcoming election.

As long as people had been here four or five years, had a clean police record and no previous problems with immigration, they would be eligible, Ebanks told her. There was a fee of $2,000 and it had to be cash. He said Mr. Bush would grant the status or residence through Cabinet and it would take about six weeks. If people changed their mind, they could get their money back in a day or two, he told her.

As time passed and no one received status, people started asking for their money back, she said. She would ask Ebanks and he would say that Cabinet had not met or else the grants had to be gazetted first.

He asked if she would be interested in introducing people to the scheme and get paid for doing so. She asked questions and satisfied herself that the scheme was legitimate, and when she approached people about it, she believed she was telling them the truth. People gave her money and she gave it to Ebanks.

Questioned by Mr. Aiolfi and Crown counsel Toyin Salako, Ms. Russell said she asked questions at the beginning and later when there was something she did not understand. She said Ebanks would talk on the phone and tell her he was talking with Mr. Bush or Cline Glidden [former West Bay MLA]. The only time he ever put on the speaker phone was a conversation with a George Town candidate, but Ms. Russell did not remember what that conversation was about.

As time passed and no one received status, people started asking for their money back, she said. She would ask Ebanks and he would say that Cabinet had not met or else the grants had to be gazetted first. Then people started coming to her house for their money, suggesting that she was scamming them and threatening her.

She and two other women who had introduced people to the scheme decided to write a letter to Mr. Bush. In it they explained that they had been approached by Ebanks and were told they would be helping Mr. Bush increase his number of voters, who would receive status. The women said in the letter that it was gullible of them to get involved without solid proof, but Ebanks had convinced them. He also convinced them that Mr. Bush would not let harm come to them.

The women said in their letter that between them they had collected over $200,000 and given it to Ebanks; now they wondered where they would get money to give back to people. “We humbly ask your assistance and a favorable reply,” the letter concluded. It was then delivered to a man at the gate of Mr. Bush’s house.

Ms. Russell said Mr. Bush phoned her after they had delivered the letter. He told her he was Mr. Bush and she recognized his voice, but she was so nervous she handed the phone over to one of the other women who was with her at the time. That woman did the talking and told her Mr. Bush had said he would have his attorney contact them.

Ebanks told her he was speaking with Mr. Bush about getting people’s money back. There was a meeting arranged in December 2012, but on that very date when they were set to go, Mr. Bush was arrested. Other meetings were arranged but they never took place; the only way she knew about them was Ebanks telling her.

After December 2012, Mr. Bush was no longer premier. Elections were held in May 2013 and Mr. Bush’s party was no longer in power.

She said Ebanks went to the bank to get a loan to pay people back. He also told her he had sold some property in Cayman Brac and had received a check in U.S. currency, so he had to deposit it.

She used her own savings and borrowed from friends to try to pay back some people – almost $3,000. People had threatened to kill her and burn her house down, she said.
In September 2013, she and the other two women voluntarily went to the Immigration Department to tell their story.

By that time, she knew that Ebanks had been to prison for offenses relating to status grants. If she had known that at the beginning, she said, she would not have gotten involved with him.