The embattled premier of the Cayman Islands has sounded a note of defiance in the face of theft and corruption allegations, refusing to step down and blaming his travails on the secretive tax haven’s governor, who was appointed by the Queen.
Financial crime investigators form the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service in the British Overseas Territory detained McKeeva Bush at his home and brought him in for questioning twice this week before freeing him on bail, saying that they were probing allegations that the veteran leader had misused his government credit card and abused his office in relation to improper imports of explosives. The Cayman News Service reported that the explosives had been brought in by Midland Acres, a local firm, without the necessary permits. Without detailing the claims, the police also said they were looking into allegations of theft.
Investigators said they had seized “a considerable amount of property, including computer equipment” during searches related to Mr Bush’s arrest, according to Reuters.
But, despite growing calls from the opposition to step down, the head of the tax haven has refused to budge. Soon after a second round of questioning by investigators, he left for Jamaica to deliver a commencement address at a local university, promising to return the Islands last night. “I have done nothing wrong and I shall not be resigning as premier,” he said in a statement. “I also wish to assure one and all that the government continues to operate as normal.”
Mr Bush was meant to receive an honorary doctorate at the ceremony on Thursday, but authorities at the Jamaica’s University College of the Caribbean said the honour would have to wait until the probe is concluded.
He nonetheless gave a commencement address, suggesting to the assembled graduates that his woes were the handiwork of political enemies. “We are a British overseas territory and as such it is run by the governor and the commissioner of police. And so I can’t miss that it is nothing but a political, very vindictive political witch hunt,” he said, reportedly describing the Cayman Governor Duncan Taylor, the local representative of the British crown, as his “enemy.”
Mr Bush, who was elected as premier of the islands in 2009 and also serves as the secretive territory’s finance minister, insisted that he would be exonerated.
“I would just say that I have done nothing wrong,” he said. “I have made a lot of friends and I have made a lot of enemies. There are a lot of jealous people in a very small island.”
In his address to students, the 57 year-old, who is the longest serving member of the Cayman legislature, also spoke of the importance of playing by the rules and being truthful. “A reputation takes a lifetime to build and a moment to dismantle,” he said.
Rivals, meanwhile, are stepping up pressure on the embattled leader, with the head of the Cayman opposition Alden McLaughlin threatening to force Mr Bush out. “Arguments about ‘innocent until proven guilty’ are not relevant,” Mr McLaughlin said, according to the local Caymanian Compass newspaper. “We are not prejudging the guilt or innocence of Mr Bush. That is a matter for a court of law – should he eventually be charged and prosecuted.”
He said the reputation of the islands, which are renowned as the legal base for scores of hedge funds and businesses seeking low tax alternatives to their home countries, was at stake.
“In the interests of the Cayman Islands, I call on the members of the Cabinet... to take the necessary steps to remove Mr McKeeva Bush as premier,” he said, warning that otherwise, he would approach the speaker of the legislature to call a special meeting of lawmakers to discuss the case.
A place that has sold its soul to finance, but where nothing much tends to happen
By Simon English
The Cayman Islands is a curious place. More than most islands it is insular and inward looking. Proud, but a little defensively so.
And a little prone to paranoia, perhaps, that it is being got at by American politicians, EU bureaucrats or meddling Brits.
You can hear this loud and clear in McKeeva Bush’s staunch dismissal of the allegations against him. It’s vindictive, he says, a political witch-hunt. His enemies are out to destroy him. He might have a point, or not, but his arrest seems symbolic of a place where all is not quite as it seems on the surface.
Is McKeeva – everyone calls him either that or just Mac – a man who rose from humble beginnings to become the islands’ most respected and most powerful politician? Or a small-time crook looking out for No 1?
In theory, the Cayman Islands is the sixth-largest financial centre in the entire globe. In reality, it’s a tiny place with a population of just 50,000, some of whom are foreigners who administer the hedge funds that base themselves in Grand Cayman for tax purposes. The funds are managed from Grand Cayman in a legal, administrative sense. The actual money is invested from New York and London by directors who may set foot on the islands for annual board meetings, but otherwise have little to do with the place.
You can get irritated at the Cayman Islands’ status as a tax haven if you like, but that’s how it pays for lunch, how it survives.
It doesn’t, in truth, have that much else going for it and Caymanians themselves feel some sense of shame that they sold out to finance just to live comfortably. Jamaica might be poorer, have more crime, but it’s got Bob Marley and a strong sense of its own identity.
The islands aren’t self-sufficient in anything, certainly not food, which arrives daily from Miami and beyond. Tourists are lured by the diving – some of the best in the world – and Seven Mile Beach is beautiful. Beyond that, well, there’s some good eating and drinking to be done but the odd hurricane aside – Hurricane Ivan devastated the Cayman Islands in 2004 – a visitor could get the impression that this is a place where nothing much happens. Twice.
Drugs are available if not rife, though the police have no sense of humour and punishment can be draconian. Otherwise, a fairly common source of diversion seems to be extra-marital affairs. Not out of wild bohemian edginess, more from boredom.
The allegations against Mr Bush will be a source of gossip in Grand Cayman bars. And some of those gossiping will remember that the folk doing the investigating – Royal Cayman Islands Police Service – aren’t entirely squeaky clean either.
A few years ago the police commissioner Stuart Kernohan was embroiled in a corruption case that saw him lose his job. Mr Kernohan had moved to the islands following a scandal in the UK when he had an affair with a murder witness, whom he later left his wife for. If he came in search of a new beginning, the dream quickly went sour. Not everyone fits in.
For many Caymanians, typically conservative, Christian folk, the allegations against the premier will be an embarrassment they don’t want to discuss and don’t think is anyone else’s business.
Europeans or American who settle in the Cayman Islands for extended periods seem to get used the idea that it doesn’t pay to look too closely at the underbelly of society. If you want permission to stay, asking too many questions, being sceptical or sarcastic is a short route to an exit.
As for McKeeva Bush, he has been down on his luck before and come back. He may do so again.
One long-term island-dweller said of him: “He can be very charming and surprisingly softly spoken in private. Always very warm. Loyal to his friends. He was a long-time thorn in the side of the UK government – he has fallen out with most if not all governors and overseas territories ministers over the years. He was always very paranoid about the British role in Cayman.”
Simon English lived in the Cayman Islands 2005-2006