Monrovia – In October 2015, former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led instructed her then Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, the late Edward B. McClain to immediately liaise with all chairpersons of Boards of all State-owned Enterprises (SoE) to collate, and report to her, all resolution which have been passed by these Boards especially on board fees, benefits and other compensations.
The move was aimed at officials of government, serving as statutory members on Boards of Public Corporations, who were receiving Board Fees and other emoluments. In the past 72 hours, the issue has resurfaced following the release of a damning report by the London-based watchdog group, suggesting that in 2013, US oil giant, Exxon signed a $120 million deal with the Liberian Government for an oil block it knew was tainted by corruption. The GW exposé reveals, Exxon negotiated the deal despite its concern over “issues regarding US anti-corruption laws."
As part of the probe, GW reported that Exxon’s purchase in 2013 was also accompanied by over $200,000 in unusual, large payments made by the corruption-tainted Liberian oil agency to six Liberian officials who approved the deal. “Officials who received payments include Liberia’s then-Justice, Finance and Mining Ministers, each of whom received $35,000 – more than doubling their annual salaries.The officials receiving the unusual payments and the posts they filled at the time were: Finance Minister Amara Konneh, Justice Minister Christiana Tah, Mining Minister Patrick Sendolo, National Investment Chairman Natty Davis, NOCAL CEO Randolph McClain, NOCAL Board Chair Robert Sirleaf. Sirleaf, who is the son of then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was reportedly working pro-bono at the time.
The report added that the three officials who received payments – Davis, Sirleaf and Tah – have stated that they were “bonuses,” authorized by NOCAL’s Board of Directors for negotiating a good deal with Exxon. Details of these responses can be found in Global Witness’ report. There is no evidence that Exxon knew about these payments, but they were likely made from the same oil agency account into which Exxon had just deposited $5 million.
Global Witness is recommending that Exxon, Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast, and those who received the unusual, large payments should be investigated to determine if they broke laws in the US and Liberia.
At the time of the Sirleaf’s directive, the Law Society of Liberia The legal society expressed that the pronouncements of the President required further scrutiny to determine whether or not this conduct constitutes a violation of the Liberian Constitution in respect to the Code of Conduct for Public Officials.
The society wrote cited Article 90 of the Liberian constitution which states (a) No person, whether elected or appointed to any public office, shall engage in any other activity which shall be against public policy, or constitute conflict of interest; (b) No person holding office shall demand and receive any other perquisites, emoluments or benefits, directly or indirectly, on account of any duty required by Government; (c) The Legislature shall, in pursuance of the above provision, prescribe a Code of Conduct for all public officials and employees, stipulating the acts which constitute conflict of interest or are against public policy, and the penalties for violation thereof.
Additionally, Executive Order # 38 OF 2012 PART IX, SECTION 9.10 states: ‘’A Public Servant shall not, while receiving or being paid salaries by any public service office, at the same time receive or be paid salary by any other public office. Public Servants providing service to other institutions, including service on Boards, on account of a duty require by Government, shall not demand and receive any other benefits for such service.”
Part IX of the Code of Conduct under Bribes and Conflict of Interest states: “Public Officials and Employees of Government shall not, while receiving or being paid salaries by the Government, at the same time receive or be paid salary by any other public office unless it is established that such additional employment is in the public interest [e.g. teaching at public educational institutions], and that such service does not conflict with the Public Official or Employee of Government’s principal employment.
The Executive Order is no longer of legal effect. However, there may have been violations that could have been addressed by the LACC. It is important to consider the effect of the Constitution in relations to the National Code of Conduct and the extent to which they address these issues.”
The Law Society contends that historically, public service has unfortunately been seen as an opportunity for the abuse of the public purse resulting in the acquisition of ill-gotten wealth. “Corporations and their Boards of Directors have perpetuated a system of bleeding and pillaging the public coffer. All attempts at reforms have been ad hoc, at times perfunctory and discriminatory and at worst violate the public trust in their elected and appointed leaders. Successive governments and including this administration, have not resisted the temptation of using Boards as a vehicle to reward friends, to perpetuate cronyism and patronage as well as income generation for supporters and loyalists.”
It was previously reported It was further revealed that the LACC is also in the process of closing a loophole, which government officials had apparently employed to engage in double dipping practices. That is to say - officials, in the pay of the Government, were also receiving payments for serving on Boards of state-owned parastatals.
The Law Society has also suggested that the decision to deal with Public Corporations Board Reforms in Liberia must ensure the enforcement of existing legal instruments. “Alleged violators of the law must be held accountable otherwise trust will continue to erode and public perception that government positions are a feeding trough for those so deployed will only be further entrenched. There is a need to reverse the otherwise erroneous culture of Board of Directors being a vehicle to perpetuate a patronage system.”
Consistent with LLS interpretation of Executive Order #38, and in anticipation of evoking and a resolution of the intent of our Constitution and Executive Order # 38 the founder of LLS, Attorney Samuel Kofi Woods II, while serving as Minister of Public Works, wrote a letter dated November 6, 2012 and addressed to the Former Executive Chairperson, Cllr. Frances Johnson-Allison informing her of his decision not “to receive both Board and sitting fees as member of all boards’’ to which he was appointed. He did so consistent with his interpretation of Part IX, Section 9.10 of Executive Order #38. He further informed her that his decision took effect as of the date of the signing of Executive Order #38. He agrees that even him must be subject of this scrutiny.
To date, the LLS has not seen or heard of any scrutiny or evaluation of the Executive Order in regards to its execution in this respect.
The LLS has said that it might be appropriate for the LACC to provide a full report on the enforcement of the Executive Order and its enforcement. Executive Orders has a legal lifespan of one year. It has now been replaced by the National Code of Conduct. “In the opinion of the LLS, the recent decision by President Johnson-Sirleaf to direct the Ministry of State to collate all resolutions on Board Fees, Compensations and other emoluments is misplaced. Existing accountability institutions are well placed to undertake institutional reforms. These institutions, which include the Governance Commission and/or Civil Service Agency (CSA), are more suited to address such matters consistent with their mandate and congruous with the reform process.”
In furtherance of this, the LLS says both the LACC and GAC could also take the lead in conducting a comprehensive review of all past and present Board Actions on the issue of Board and Sitting fees, emoluments, benefits and compensations. While such review is being conducted, LLS propose a moratorium on all fees and other forms of compensation until the reform is completed and the relevant provisions of the Code of Conduct, especially on double compensation, is properly interpreted.
The LLS is meanwhile raising concerns regarding the Asset Declaration and Verification processes by LACC, which commenced in 2012. “The LLS is of the view that the processes were intended to enhance transparency and integrity in public service. However, these processes remain inconclusive with initial reports that some officials refused to comply while others were alleged to have made false declarations. To date, nothing has been heard of the conclusion of such processes and no action taken to enforce the laws.”
In light of the foregoing, the Liberia Law Society is calling for a full audit on the implementation and enforcement of Executive Order # 38 especially in relations to the assets declaration and verification process and Board Compensation; A full audit and review of the implementation of the current Code of Conduct for Public Officials; A comprehensive reform of Public Corporations both in terms of governance, compensation and value to the State; Suspension of all Board Fees and other emoluments of public corporation pending a full review and recommendations for reforms.
The LLS noted: “Inarguably, public perception of corruption is being fueled by the level of pervasive impunity and the lack of consistency in actions undertaken by our Government and institutions. The Liberia Law Society is of the hope that by adhering to the recommendations mentioned supra, a modest contribution would have been made in our country’s sojourn along the path of transparency, accountability, justice and fairness. This can only be good for OUR COUNTRY.”