Bonuses or Bribes? Sirleaf-Era Officials Slam ‘Malicious’ Global Witness Bombshell


Monrovia – A damning report by the London-based corruption watchdog group, Global Witness, released Thursday, March 29, alleging that the US petroleum giant, Exxon’s 2013 purchase of Liberia’s Block 13 oil license likely enriched former officials who may have illegally owned the block, is being greeted with strong condemnations by these officials of the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led administration, including her son, Robert A. Sirleaf.

Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]com 

Global Witness is a non-governmental organization that investigates and campaigns to prevent natural resource-related conflict and corruption and associated environmental and human rights abuses. 

The report also alleged that the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) also made unusual, large payments to senior government officials, who authorized the 2013 deal and is calling on Madam Sirleaf’s successor, President George Manneh Weah, to investigate those involved in Exxon’s 2013 oil deal for corruption or wrongdoing.

The GW report alleges that its evidence suggests that shortly following the authorization of the 2013 Exxon deal senior Liberian officials were paid “bonuses” of US$35,000 by NOCAL – more than doubling their annual salaries. 

Those listed as receiving payments are: former NOCAL CEO Randolph McClain, former National Investment Chairman Natty B. Davis, former Finance Minister Amara Konneh, former Lands, Mines and Energy Minister Patrick Sendolo, NOCAL Board Chair Robert Sirleaf, the son of then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former Attorney General Christiana Tah. 

Global Witness wrote: “Robert Sirleaf was reportedly working pro-bono at the time. However, he too received a payment of US$35,000. The evidence shows that these payments were associated with the Exxon deal.

The payments were probably made from the same bank account into which Exxon had recently deposited part of its bonus to NOCAL, although there is no evidence that Exxon knew about them.” 

In separate responses Thursday, both Mr. Sirleaf and the former Justice Minister sent separate communications they said were submitted to Global Witness as part of their responses. 

Former Minister Tah, in her response took exception to the report’s findings and Global Witness in particular, terming the report’s accusations that she was offered or received bribe as “malicious”. 

Former Minister Tah: ‘Appalled’ Over Bribery Label 

In her response dated March 7, 2018, the former Justice Minister wrote:

I am writing in response to the March 7, 2018 unsigned letter which you sent to me under Global Witness’ letterhead, accusing me of “likely” accepting a bribe in relation to a contract entered into between the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) and Exxon-Mobil in 2012, at a time when I served as Minister of Justice of the Republic of Liberia.

I have chosen to address this letter to you because I understand you have dispatched similar letters under your signature with accusations of bribery against other parties who worked on securing for Liberia the advantages of an exploration agreement between NOCAL and Exxon. 

We have never spoken and I have no idea what your agenda is. I am appalled by the fact that you think it is ethical to allege bribery without first seeking out the facts.

Indeed, I am of the impression that it makes little difference to you whether you have facts right before making these allegations; hence I understand that the Chair of the Advisory Board has already expressed a cautionary note within Global Witness concerning the anticipated publication.

Hopefully, this letter (along with any other responses which I expect you are receiving  will give Global Witness cause for concern that not only are you acting recklessly with respect to reputational injury to innocent people but also acting in a manner that cast aspersions  on the reputation and credibility of Global Witness. 

Bonus payments were authorized by NOCAL’s Board of Directors to all NOCAL Staff and others who performed exceptionally in conducting the negotiations on the Exxon Contract.

These bonus payments were made long after the Exxon deal concluded. I understand that even drivers received bonuses. Do you mean to tell me that Exxon was so desperate that it even bribed drivers? 

I did not receive money or an offer to pay money from Exxon-Mobil for the award of the oil contract related to Block 13, neither am I aware of anyone who may have requested or received a bribe from the aforesaid company, directly or indirectly.

The suggestion that there was a “quid pro quo” link between entering into the contract and payments by using the term Bribe”, is malicious and appears to be deliberate and purposeful. 

I served the Government of Liberia in the capacity of Attorney General/Minister of Justice for five years and did not at any time solicit concessionaires or any individual or entity seeking a contract with the Government to pay me anything.

I advise you consult with your counsel on the legal ramifications of malice in publishing defamatory statements. I will not sit by and allow you to defame my good name. 

Rob Sirleaf: ‘No Bribe Was Necessary’ 

In his response dated March 12, 2018, Mr. Sirleaf in a communication to Mr. Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner for Liberia, said the accusations that bribes were paid is absurd and baseless. 

Said Mr. Sirleaf: 

I understand that you have been emailing people associated with NOCAL in 2013 asserting that “bribes” were paid by NOCAL to secure the signature of the Exxon-Mobil Block 13 contract. This is absurd and baseless. 

During my tenure as a member of the NOCAL team, I took great responsibility and pride in the development of Liberia’s potential oil resource for the benefit of our shareholders, the Liberian people.

The Block 13 contract was the most successful, publicly documented, and transparent transaction in Liberia’s oil industry history. 

It resulted in the payment by Exxon-Mobil of a US$50,000,000 signature bonus, with US$45,000,000 going to the Consolidated Fund of the Ministry of Finance which is well documented, and only US$5,000,000 retained by NOCAL.

In addition, it brought one of the world’s most experienced oil companies to Liberia. 

After the contract was signed and the funds transferred, NOCAL paid a bonus to ALL officers, board members and employees of NOCAL (approx. 140+) including drivers, janitors, secretaries and clerks.  I’m very sure one wouldn’t draw any conclusions that a bonus paid to the ENTIRE company, including all junior staff, was a “bribe.” 

So, your suggestive is preposterous. 

In fact, the signature bonus Liberia received for the Block 13 contract was about fifteen times more than the largest signature bonus Liberia had previously negotiated for any oil contract. 

No “bribe” was necessary to encourage signature of that contract, and any suggestion that I or anyone else received a “bribe” from NOCAL is totally false. 

Konneh: ‘I Did Not Solicit’ Bonus, Bribe 

Former Finance and Development Planning Minister Amara M. Konneh when contacted Thursday, issued the following statement to FrontPageAfrica: 

Mr. Konneh wrote: 

On March 29, 2018, Global Witness released a report titled, “Global Witness Exxon Mobil Liberia March 2018”, in which my name is mentioned as having received a bonus of US$35,000 along with other former officials of the Government of Liberia after the successful conclusion of the Production Sharing Contract for Block 13 between the Government of Liberia through the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) and Exxon Mobil in 2013. 

Here are the facts, as Minister of Finance and Development Planning, which made me a member of the Board of NOCAL, I was effectively involved in the negotiation efforts to bring in ExxonMobil, America’s largest oil company, into Liberia’s promising oil basin as a means of boosting its outlook and ultimately attracting other supermajors to participate in the development of the country’s hydrocarbon resources.

After many months of intense negotiations, we concluded a landmark deal that would see Liberia receive a non-refundable signature bonus of $50 million United States Dollar, a first for a non-oil producing country.  

Following this major milestone, the Board of Directors of NOCAL decided it would be fitting to organize a bonus package for all of those who worked hard and long to pull off this deal, which included, as supported by Global Witness in their report, the relevant line ministries and agencies of the government and the entire staff of National Oil Company of Liberia. I call on NOCAL to release to the public the full list of everyone who received bonus payment from the Exxon negotiation. 

Additionally, Global Witness is fully aware that everyone knew the circumstances surrounding Block 13 before the Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited (COPL) acquired it and then subsequently sold it to Exxon Mobil.

The records are there, and the transactions were concluded in the public and reviewed by top US lawyers to ensure that the transaction did not violate the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Let me state here categorically that while I accepted the bonus through an official NOCAL check as did all others, I, Amara M. Konneh, as Minister of Finance and Development Planning at the time, did not solicit or request a bonus or any other payment for the work that I did for the benefit of my country’s oil burgeoning hydrocarbon program. 

Furthermore, I served as Minister of Finance from February 2012 to April 2016 and during and after my term of service, I did not at any time solicit or receive money or favor from corporations or individuals seeking relationship with the Government of Liberia. 

Global Witness further stated in the report that I was contacted to respond to their query but refused to do so. I would like to state categorically that at no point in time have I ever received a call or communication in any other manner from GW to respond to issues raised in their report relating to me. I am, as always, willing to respond to queries relating to issues arising during my time of service with the Government of Liberia. 

Let me conclude that we remain proud of the work we did for our country by ensuring that it benefited from US$50 million as a result of that transaction. That is by far the largest amount that Liberia ever received for any of its offshore blocks.

For Global Witness to suggest that a US$35,000 bonus paid to each member of the negotiating team for ensuring that Liberia got US$50 million from the transaction is a bribe on a US$120 million deal is an insult to the reputation and integrity of the Liberian officials.

In fact, global best practice would suggest that when employees achieve great results, bonus is a way of appreciating and incentivizing them.

When has this become a crime to pay and receive a bonus? 

‘No Comment’ – Sendolo Mum 

Former Lands, Mines and Energy Minister Sendolo declined to give a detailed comment when contacted, declaring: “I do not see anything that warrants comment on my part.” 

Block 13 was originally awarded by NOCAL in 2005 to Liberian-Anglo Company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP). 

In 2007, the block was ratified by the Liberian legislature through bribery.

According to Global Witness, its evidence shows that the company was likely part-owned by former Mining Minister Jonathan Mason and former Deputy Minister Mulbah Willie. 

Mason and Willie are suspected of granting the oil block to a company in which they held interests while they were also ministers in 2005, which was illegal under Liberian law. 

The findings note that Exxon knew that Block 13 was originally awarded through bribery and that its purchase of the oil block could enrich former officials who might have been behind BCP. 

“In a PowerPoint presentation obtained by Global Witness, Exxon wrote that it was interested in purchasing the oil block despite its “concern over issues regarding US anti-corruption laws. 

Undeterred by the corruption red flags, Exxon went ahead with the deal anyway.

Global Witness’ evidence shows that it structured the transaction in a way to skirt US anti-corruption laws by using a Canadian company – Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited (COPL) – as a go-between to buy the block. 

“It’s appalling that an oil giant like Exxon would buy up an oil block they knew was tainted by corruption,” said Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness.

“This kind of morally dubious corporate behavior is particularly shocking in a country like Liberia where endemic corruption continues to rob people of opportunities.” 

The GW report said if Mason did own BCP shares when Exxon bought Block 13, he would have received a share of the US$68.5 million Exxon paid BCP.

Mr. Willie died in 2012, so any money he was owned would likely have gone to his estate. 

The report also noted that there is evidence that Adolph Lawrence, who became a Representative in 2012, held a BCP ownership interest in 2011.

“If Lawrence continued to hold this interest when Exxon bought 2013, he also would have broken the law and may have received part of the money Exxon paid BCP.”