Cayman Islands Defends Image: Officials Cite Recent Help to US in War on Narcotics Traffickers

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NEW YORK -- Michael J. Bradley, attorney general of the Cayman Islands, thinks his homeland has an image problem.

"People have this fairy tale image that the Cayman Islands is a place that doesn't really exist, that it was created just to handle criminals carrying satchels of cash through the country," he complains in his gentle British accent during an interview here.

Indeed, the Cayman Islands -- a small British dependency some 480 miles south of Miami -- has become something of a symbol of offshore money-laundering centers -- nations with strict privacy laws where illegal profits can be hidden and then routed into apparently legal channels.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations singled the island out for especially sharp criticism in a 1983 report, charging that its bank confidentiality laws "provide an outstanding opportunity for individuals seeking to launder or otherwise hide illegal profits."

"The image of the Caymans is manifestly unjust and untrue," responds Mr. Bradley, and he is here in the United States with a delegation of officials from the Caymans in an effort to improve it.

Ten months ago, the Caymans agreed to begin providing documentary evidence from its banks when requested by the U.S. Justice Department in cases involving narcotics trafficking. In that time, Mr. Bradley said, the United States has sought information in only 28 cases.

More important, Mr. Bradley said, the Caymans has always been willing to obtain and make available to U.S. authorities information pertaining to investigations of criminal acts "that would also be an offense in the Caymans."

That means that information on drug traffickers, for example, would have been made available, since the colony has laws prohibiting the sale and use of drugs. Information on tax evasion, though, would not be forwarded to U.S. tax collectors, since the islands have no income or property taxes.

The agreement under which the Caymans began providing bank records some 10 months ago was set forth in an exchange of letters. The letters between the United States and the Caymans called for talks to begin this summer on a treaty if both parties believe the agreement is working satisfactorily.

Mr. Bradley said those talks should begin soon.

For all the bad press the Caymans have received over the years, some knowledgeable and influential U.S. officials are stepping forward in the colony's defense.

Sen. Paula Hawkins, R-Fla., for example, in a "Dear Colleague" letter, called the Caymans "an all-too-rare success story" in the battle against "narcotics trafficking and its attending evil, the 'laundering' of illicit drug profits through our international financial system. …