(CNS): A key prosecution witness giving evidence in a trial against a local man accused of conning more than two dozen people out of over CI$167,000 in a Caymanian status grant scam told the court Friday that she and two other women allegedly roped into the con, believing it to be a legitimate scheme, wrote to McKeeva Bush, who was premier at the time, asking him to address the grants they thought he was behind. Siri Russel told the jury that she believed Paul Anthony Hume Ebanks when he recruited her to help him find suitable people willing to pay $2,000 per person for Caymanian status.
She said she was convinced he was working on behalf of Bush because she was told the premier was looking to expand the number of people eligible to vote ahead of the 2013 general election.
The jury heard that Russel and two other women involved in the scam, which the crown claim was all down to Ebanks alone, decided to write to Bush. She said they had recruited several people into the scheme and collected tens of thousands of dollars, which they gave to Ebanks, but months later there was still no sign of any status grants. Russel said she had believed Ebanks as the whole thing seemed very similar to the way the 2003 mass status grant had worked. But when the defendant kept making excuses and the people she and others had collected cash from were demanding their money back, they wrote to the premier in late 2012 asking him what was happening about the grants, she said.
The full content of that correspondence was not read in the court but the witness indicated that the women explained how they had been recruited into the status grant scheme by Ebanks, had collected thousands of dollars and were now stuck, not knowing what to do as people were demanding their money back because there had no been no grants. They told Bush that Ebanks had promised them that the premier would ensure they were not adversely affected and so they asked Bush to step in.
Russel said the letter was delivered to the guard at the premier’s house in West Bay. She told the court that the next day the premier had called her. She said he introduced himself and she recognised his voice but she was far too nervous to speak with him and handed the phone to one of the other women. Following that conversation, Russel said, she was informed that they were going to hear from Bush’s lawyers.
Russell implied that the women by this time were beginning to suspect that the scheme was a con. But Ebanks continued to do things that convinced them that the scheme had been genuine, as he would appear to talk on the phone to McKeeva Bush, then MLA Cline Glidden and Deputy Governor Franz Manderson. He also pretended to speak to other members of the UDP, the premier’s political party. Russel told the court that on one occasion Ebanks spoke to Jonathan Piercy, a candidate at the time in George Town for the party, and placed him on speaker phone while she was in the car. The witness told the court that the men seemed to be speaking about not giving people a refund for the grants at that point.
Later on Ebanks told Russell that a Cabinet meeting had been set for December to deal with the issue and the people who had paid would get their status, but before that meeting happened, Russel said, Bush was arrested.
The premier was arrested in relation to an allegation of the misuse of his government credit card and was ousted from office just a few weeks later and then charged before the 2013 election. He was, however, acquitted of all charges in October 2014 following a jury trial.
No allegations have been made by the crown that he had anything to do with this status scam or any plans for an official or unofficial status grant. Manderson and Glidden have given statements in the case but it is understood that Bush has not provided any formal statement to the crown regarding the allegations made by Ebanks, who has denied all the charges and indicated he was working on behalf of the former premier.
The case continues.