MONROVIA – So many questions are lingering over the accuracy of audit reports relied upon by the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitor General-designate to enlist dozens of ex-officials of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s regime who are now expected to restitute several amounts allegedly received by them as board fees or expended without accountability.
By Lennart Dodoo, [email protected]
The Ministry of Justice through the Solicitor General-designate, Cllr. Syama Syrenius Cephus, on Wednesday released a list of ‘persons of interest’ who are said have either been found liable of financial malpractice by the General Auditing Commission (GAC) or through investigation by the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC).
The list was compiled by a team of criminal investigators and prosecuting attorneys dubbed ‘Assets Recovery Team’ (ART) headed by Cllr. Arthur T. Johnson.
The Assets Recovery Team (ART) has been mandated to pursue the course of restitution as a way of recovering unconditionally all of the monies unaccounted for, and possible criminal prosecution will be pursued in the event where a negotiated settlement is not achieved, according to the Justice Ministry. In this case, an indictment would be drawn against such individuals and the courts would be petitioned for freeze and seize asserts.
According to the Justice Ministry, the list released so far is just a portion of the ‘persons of interest’ who they expect to make restitution into government’s coffers. More names are expected to be released in coming weeks, the Ministry of Information has said.
The Legality of Board Fees
A contentious issue coming up from one of the audit reports is booking of Board Members of the Liberia Maritime Authority (LMA) including Cllr. Benedict Sannoh, former Justice Minister; Ms. Angela Cassel-Bush, former Minister of Transport; Mr. Binyan Kessely, former Commissioner of Liberia Maritime Authority (LMA) and James S. Debbah, Maritime Board member for receiving ‘illegal’ sitting fees.
According to the GAC Audit Report on the LMA (August 2018), a total of US$64,800 was paid to various officials of government as board fees.
Debbah is said to have received US$13,500; Kessely also received US$13,500; Sannoh, US$24,300 and Cassell-Bush, US$13,500.
The audit report cited Article 90(B) of the Constitution which states that “No person holding office shall demand and receive any other perquisites, emoluments or benefits directly or indirectly, on account of any duty required by the Government.”
The risk involved, according to the GAC, is that payment of board fees to government officials is a violation of the Constitution which could lead to the misapplication of public resources and considered double payment.
However, Cllr. Sannoh who was then the Minister of Justice and Attorney General had opined that the act of Legislature describing the Code of Conduct for all public officials and employees of the government is the controlling law that governs the payment of board and sitting fees.
“There is no conflict of interest as defined by the Code of Conduct when a public official serves on a board of directors of a public cooperation where such services do not conflict with the public official’s principal employment.
Cllr. Sannoh further argued that payment of board fees does not qualify as ‘receipt of double emolument’ as defined and contemplated under Section 9.2 of the Code of Conduct.
He included in his response that the payment of board and sitting fees serve as policy tool to facilitate the attendance of board members to board meetings on a regular basis to bring their best efforts to the attainment of the goals of their respective public corporation;
The Auditor General, however, noted that Attorney General’s opinion is just Advisory and not law. She noted that the 1986 Constitution prohibits double emoluments, and assuming without admitting that the Attorney General’s interpretation of Section 9.2 of the National Code of Conduct is correct as it relates to double payments or emoluments, said provision cannot withstand the said constitution, which is the supreme and fundamental law of this land, pursuant to chapter 1, Article 2 of same.
The Big Three’s US$13 Million
Mr. Cephus’ list mentioned Mr. Amara Konneh, Former Minister of Finance, Dr. James Kollie, former Deputy Minister of Finance for Fiscal Affairs and Mr. Boima Kamara who also served as Finance Minister in the closing period of Madam Sirleaf’s regime. According to ART, the trio could not collectively account for some US$13 million from the European Union (EU).
The Solicitor General-designate reliance was a GAC audit which he claimed was conducted for the period July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2017.
Dr. Kollie who isn’t taking the list lightly wrote Cllr. Cephus:
Dear Cllr. Cephas:
I present you greetings and wish to respectfully inquire about the basis upon which my name was mentioned on a list of ‘persons of interest’ issued by you on 19 June, 2019.
Cllr. Cephas, because the list reference to GAC Audit Reports for the period July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2017, I really do want to know the following:
Is there actually any audit report by the GAC on $13 million provided by the European Union?
Did that report, if it exists, ever mention my name?
Does that report have any response from me in it?
Is the mention of me or anyone purely on the basis of unsubstantiated media and press reports?
Cllr. Cephas, I am constrained to ask these questions because to the best of my knowledge, no auditor has ever asked me any question about EU $13 million and so for your press statement to claim that there is a GAC report is totally surprising and baffling.
And if there is no GAC Report, Cllr. Cephas, I want you to imagine the irreparable damage that you have caused to our reputation. For example, Boima S. Kamara was not even working at the Ministry of Finance in 2013 (the period of the purported report) and so it would be impossible for him to have been involved in any audit at that time.
Honorable Solicitor General (designate), I am hoping that you will take these questions in good faith and do everything you can to respond so that the record can be set straight.
Thanking you for your professionalism, I remain.
James F. Kollie
Amara Konneh Hits Back
Former Finance Minister Konneh also didn’t let the list slip without defending his time at the ministry. He sees his enlistment for restitution as an act of gullible politics. He posted to his Facebook page:
We will continue to pay high prices for public service. Others before us did, and many after us will. Politicians in a gullible society always take advantage of the frustrations and anger of the people to demonize good people especially when they don’t have solutions for the challenges they were elected to solve for the people who elected them. They vilify their likely opponents because it validates their present failures and past actions.
I lean on two things: my conscience and the quality of my service to my country, which is supported by years of a paper trail and verifiable results that are still intact. As humans, we will occasionally be affected by various claims, especially from folks we believe either ought to know better, or simply have no place to assert these claims. But always, we ought to comfort ourselves by the virtues of our consciences, and the values of our works. In the end, both will prove enduring to ourselves, and the public we strive to serve.
I welcome this new debate over the FY12/13 EU $13 million budget support that started with a simple newspaper story in June 2012, which was later corrected. The EU money story is a falsehood that my opponents have latched on to and exploited to the point of even making and circulating a doctored video. Since this is no longer a mere gossip and corrected newspaper story but a legal matter, I will now speak about it through my lawyers. We will respond officially when the Liberian authorities formally communicate with us.
I urge you not to politicize or lose sleep over this as I am not. Let due process takes it course. I’m very happy that this matter will finally be put to rest based on evidence which the authorities haven’t shared with me. The ball is now in the GoL’s court to prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubts. I guarantee you all that I’m completely innocent and can prove my innocence in a competent and independent court. Thank you for your support.
Lewis Brown: ‘I’m Not Aware of Any GAC Audit
Former Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism who was later assigned as Liberia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations was named to have been responsible for L$4,908,161.47and US$3,410,937.99between the period of July 1, 2012 – June 30, 2014.
However, Mr. Brown in a lengthy response to the list said, “It is instructive that none of the individuals listed under MICAT have either participated in any audit of MICAT by the GAC or have been made aware or participated in any investigation by the LACC. The closest I have come to information concerning the alleged conduct of an audit by the GAC was through a publication in the September 18, 2018 online and print edition of the FrontPageAfrica Newspaper, more than two and half years after I had left the MICAT, under the byline of journalist Alaskai Johnson.”
According to Brown, he cannot react to an audit that he did not participate in as he was unaware of.
He said in his reaction to the FPA’s 2018 article referencing an audit of the Ministry, he informed the Editor he was never consulted at any stage of said audit, neither was he acquainted with the findings of the audit.
However, I welcomed the need for continuous audit in the public service to ensure transparency and accountability, and cautioned that these important exercises be pursued with due professional care and diligence to avoid unnecessary, unintended and irreparable harm to the reputations of undeserving individuals or risks to the reputations of our public institutions that are tasked with performing these much-needed and important functions.
Mr. Brown who was recalled from the United Nations as Liberia’s Permanent Representative by Pres. George Weah said he only heard of the audit for the second time from the LiberianAnalyst online news outlet.
“As you can expect, the publications have caused me and my family undeserved embarrassment and public derision. I have to assume it has done the same for my colleagues as well,” he said.
Others On The List
The ex-officials who are also required to make restitution include:
Fom the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, including Patrick Sendolo, Jenkins Atuanya, Sam Russ, Zack Sharp, Stephen Dorbor, Henry Sambola, Goergy Miller, Williams Hines, Samuel Semerville, Boiyan Kpakolo and Sylvester Sieh accounting for a Norwegian Fund of US$,1 279, 492,18.
At the Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, LEITI, the state prosecutor named Samuel Thompson, Amos Sackie, Gyude Allison, Stanley Kparkillen, Vicent Goi, and Herman Jones to account for the financial records US$65,937.40, among several US dollars.
At the National Housing Authority, the release Samuel Thompson, Stanley Kparkillen, Alexander Kromah, Gyude Allison, Herman Jones, Felix Mcintosh, and Molly Kamara on account of US$764, 955.54.
At the ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Turism, the release named Lewis Brown, Norris Tweh, Isaac Jackson, Patrick Worsie, James Massaquoi, US$3, 410, 037,99.
The Justice release further highlighted some officials of the Liberia Petroleum and Refinery Company, LPRC including Sumo Kupee, Jackson F. Doe, Edwin Sarvice, Elizabeth Tubman-White and Philip Sassie to account for US$257, 980, 193.52.
At Roberts International Airport, the release named Wil Bako Freeman, Gyude Moore, Samuel Wlue, Angela Cassell-Bush and Gibson Sackor to account for US$26,811,881.
Other include the Ministry of Health, Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Mathew Flomo, John Langa, Toagoe Karzon, Dr. Bernice Dahn accounting for US$10,054,748.
The release also named Pearine Parkinson, including Milton and Richards from Executive Mansion Renovation Project report, in the tone of US$9 million.
Others including names from the Ministry of Public Works, Ciapha Cephas, 52,685.27, Ministry of Defense, Brownie Samuka, 406,602.00 USD.