Mac handed in blank cheques

| 19/09/2014

(CNS): The jury heard that the former premier handed over at least one, if not more, blank cheque to his office staff in 2010against whatever personal debts he owed on his government credit card. As the crown continued to call civil service witnesses Friday in the case against McKeeva Bush for abusing that card, the issue of how Bush paid back his personal use was addressed. The court heard that as a result of budget pressures and the requirement in 2010 that government actually met its statutory obligation to submit its accounts on time, the system of sending memos with credit card statements to the premier to mark his personal expenditure fell apart.

When Wendy Manzanares, a government accountant, took to the witness stand, she explained that she had been forced to do a reconciliation of the premier’s credit card accounts in October of 2010 at home and out of office hours because the unit was so stretched.

She said she had gone back to the date of issue of the card, which was in July 2009, because the management system had fallen so far behind. This was down to a combination of resource and staff shortages, budget preparations and the need toget the financial statements to the auditor general by the statutory deadline, the accountant explained.

Bush had been sent memos with regularity until around March or April 2010, the witness recalled, but she admitted that those stopped when the unit became under increasing pressure to complete the priority work of the budget and the government accounts.

During her evidence, as she was questioned by both crown prosecutor Duncan Penny QC and defence attorney Geoffrey Cox QC on the fourth day of live evidence in the Bush trial, Manzanares explained that she had created a spread sheet to ensure funds were recovered.

This document was designed to reconcile Bush’s credit card account from the issue date and she used the original statements for the basis of the information as well as the government computer system, which indicated what payments Bush had already made for personal use.

Focusing on cash withdrawals, she explained that past evidence had suggested these were more often than not personal payments and she made a list of those against the payments the premier had previously made to government and was left with an outstanding debt of about $10,900. When this was completed she forwarded it all, along with the statements, to his personal assistant in order for the premier to acknowledge if her assumptions about personal use were accurate and to then address the outstanding balance.

In her evidence on Thursday, Bush’s former PA said she had no recollection of receiving the reconciliation, despite Manzanares' account that, as well as the email, hard copies were delivered to the premier’s office. Manzanares stated that she had followed up on those reconciliation documents, but as time went on, given what were described as more pressures in the office along with more staffing problems, the issue was forgotten.

However, in November 2012, two and a half years later, when the police began their investigation, the issue was raised again. It was at that time that Bush is understood to have paid the outstanding amount back. Bush was said by his attorney to have explained to the finance unit that he was unaware of the outstanding sums and claimed to have never seen Manzanares' original reconciliation of his account that detailed the debt. It appears that Bush believed by handing over the blank cheques he had dealt with the personal debts.

Manzanares also confirmed that until the memo system broke down, where statements were sent to the premier every month asking him to mark the personal use and pay it back, he had made good his outstanding personal use promptly.

The court heard that if he was away, especially on back-to-back trips and did not see the statements, he was known to have left blank cheques in those circumstances as well to cover whatever his outstanding balances were, trusting staff to get the calculations right and then make the payments. The government accountant said she was aware that Bush had left personal cheques for employees in the finance unit to fill in against outstanding balances, though she had never filled in the cheques herself.

The case against Bush includes 11 counts under the common and anti-corruption laws in connection with what the crown says is an abuse of office. The prosecution claims he used his government credit cards to draw cash advances in casinos to gamble on slot machines between July 2009 and April 2010, breaching the public trust by using his position to get a free line of credit for his gambling.

Bush has denied all of the charges and has persistently claimed he is the victim of a political witch-hunt at the hands of the FCO.

The court adjourned at 3:30pm Friday until Tuesday morning at 10am, as a result of further closed door arguments expected to take place Monday between the defence team and prosecutors.

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