Give Global Witness Bribery Task Force Benefit of Doubt

THERE HAVE BEEN A LOT of noise lately surrounding the Global Witness Report which has unravelled a high-stakes bribery scandal that is spinning heads and drawn senior-level government officials into the fire.

ACCORDING TO THE REPORT, the London-based Global Witness organization has released a new report in which it alleges that over US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments were made to top Liberian officials by the United Kingdom-based Sable Mining Company and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman. According to the report entitled – The Deceivers – Sable wanted to get the concession rights to Liberia’s Wologizi iron ore.

BRIBERY IS A SERIOUS MATTER, maybe not in Liberia but in the countries that matter, the ones whose taxpayers dole millions annually to ensure that Liberians languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder and lagging behind the poverty line have better access to health care, better opportunities to education and better options for a shot at a better life.

IN THE UNITED States of America, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA) (15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1, et seq.) is a federal law known primarily for two of its main provisions, one that addresses accounting transparency requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and another concerning bribery of foreign officials.

IN THE UNITED KINGDOM, where Sable Mining, the company at the center of the Global Witness report is quoted, a Bribery Act was passed on 8 April 2010 and came into force on July 1, 2011. Until recently, international anti-corruption enforcement has been largely dominated by the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1977 (the FCPA).  

THE BRIBERY represents part of a broader international trend and has an even wider application than the FCPA. However, both the Bribery Act and the FCPA make it an offence to bribe foreign (public) officials. Under the Bribery Act a “foreign public official” is defined more narrowly than under the FCPA but still includes (i) anyone who holds a foreign legislative or judicial position; (ii) individuals who exercise a public function for a foreign country, territory, public agency or public enterprise; or (iii) any official or agent of a public organisation.

THE GLOBAL WITNESS report is bad for Liberia for several reasons. The country currently has a Corruption Perception Index score of 4.1 out of 10, which is 11% better than the average but still haunted by a daring statistics that only 46.3% of citizens surveyed believe that the government is effective in the fight against corruption. Of surveyed citizens, 89% report having paid a bribe in the past 12 months, according to Transparency International.

ALL THIS AS Liberia continues to suffer from endemic corruption, which has been declared public enemy and labelled a vampire by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

THE MOST DAMNING portion of the report suggests that Cllr. Sherman allegedly told Sable Mining that in order to get the contract, the company must first offer bribes to senior officials to change Liberia’s concession laws.

GLOBAL WITNESS insists that it has proof that payments were made and even have proof that the intention of the payments was to first get the law changed in order to second get the iron ore deal. MORE IMPORTANTLY, the report suggests that the advice given to the company by Sherman, their lawyer, which they should get the law changed in order to get the contract.

THE REPORT SAYS THE OFFICIALS who allegedly received bribes include Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives Alex Tyler:  $75,000 for “consulting fees” and Richard Tolbert, chairman of the National Investment Committee:  $50,000 for “consulting fees”.

MORRIS SAYTUMAH, Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs, now a Senator, also allegedly received $50,000 for “consulting fees”, and Willie Belleh, Chairman of Public Procurement and Concessions Commission allegedly received $10,000 for “consulting fees”. Two of the biggest payments went to persons identified in the report as “Big boy 01” and “Big boy 02”, each receiving $250,000 with no explanation of why the payments were made.

THE REPORT ALSO alleges that President Sirleaf’s son, Fombah Sirleaf, who is director of Liberia’s National Security Agency also benefited with “a $7,598 hunting trip to South Africa paid for by Sable.”

OTHERS MENTIONED in the report include Senator Sumo Kupee and Cletus Wotorson – both allegedly receiving US$5,000 each as “consulting fees”. At least three officials deny allegations. It said Tolbert, Belleh, Kupee, and Wotorson all denied taking bribes from Sable.

BOTH SHERMAN AND THE SPEAKER of the House of Representatives, have stated that they will not cooperate with the Task Force. Sherman in particular has slammed the report as a “reckless disregard” for the truth and clearly stated that he and his law firm are prohibited by law and the Liberian constitution from divulging to anyone what they did for Sable Mining when they served as the company’s lawyers in Liberia in 2010. “Our code of professional ethics and the Liberian Constitution prohibits us from making any such disclosures and we will subscribe to those tenets even if we were to be taken to the gallows to be hanged,” Sherman said.

THE SPEAKER TOO says, he wants an independent panel outside of government to conduct the investigation.

WHILE WE understand the concerns of Cllr. Sherman, we feel strongly that it is in both their interest to cooperate as much as possible with the Task Force in order to get to the bottom of this scandal.

THE WORLD’S ATTENTION is on Liberia right now and Liberia itself owes it to the world to take this seriously.

AS DR. LINDA Thomas Greenfield, the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Africa Affairs told journalists this week: “Global Witness is a reputable organization that do these kinds of reports, that we need to take it seriously and what they are suggesting, should be investigated by the government and if there are areas that the government would take further actions, I would encourage the government to take those actions…”

WE FEEL THAT IT is a good sign that some of those called in by the Task Force this week showed up on Wednesday to explain their role and address the allegations.

WE ARE ALSO ENCOURAGED that the Task Force has expressed that it remains committed to the process of transparency while urging all to maintain calm and refrain from acts that could prejudice the ongoing investigation process as everyone is deemed innocent until proven otherwise.

LIBERIA HAS TAKEN a hit but this is not the first time. Corruption has been a thorn in the Sirleaf administration’s side for the last ten years. This is why we agree with Mr. Jonathan Gant’s assertions that if it is found that those named in the report broke the law, they should be removed from office prosecuted, disbarred and face criminal charges.

LIBERIA NEEDS A breadth of fresh air after enduring numerous beatings over corruption. Liberia owes it to itself to right the wrongs; the Sirleaf administration can do itself a world of good by setting an example here and the Task Force, with all the world watching, has an enormous responsibility to get to the bottom of this scandal that has the propensity to inflict grave harm on Liberia’s reputation and stain hard-fought post-war gains.

Global Witness
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