Monrovia – Just when the media was about to pounce on yet another leaked corruption audit, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hastily organized an address to the nation last Thursday, regarding what she described as preliminary results of an ongoing audit process of the Private Sector Development Initiative at the Ministry of Finance & Development Planning, commissioned by the Minister of Finance.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Ellen Corkrum, the former head of the Liberia Airport Airport was hooked for allegedly embezzling funds for the LAA and later escaped to to the US, Sebastian Muah, the former head of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority was fired after a FrontPageAfrica investigation showed he had purchased shares with nearly half a million down payment for a casino in Banqui, Central African Republic.
Now, he’s linked to questions regarding what he and the acting Comptroller, Dede Sandiman did with US$1.6 million when they served as signatories to an operational account titled Liberia Private Sector Economic Growth.
Both transactions, FrontPageAfrica has now determined took place around the same time. With Muah out of the country, Liberia appears poised to see yet another shady financial scheme disappears without a trace.
In her statement, the President averred that the audit revealed some shocking outcome and results which showed that officials at the Ministry of Finance & Development Planning were making loans to themselves in violation of the law.
In the President’s own words: “We can say with a high degree of confidence that such a scheme set up at the PDSI is clearly a conflict of interest and will be dealt with by the full weight of the law.”
The PSDI is a project, that was established in 2014 at the MFDP to provide loans to Liberian-owned small and medium-sized Enterprises (SME’s).
The loan was meant to financially-strengthen Liberian businesses. In so doing, the process would create jobs and accelerate the participation of Liberian owned businesses in the economy of Liberia.
The President did not stop there. She went a step further in ordering Dr. James Kollie, the principal administrator of the program during the audit period, to return to Liberia from his official trip to assist in the audit and answer all of the issues associated with it.
Familiarity Channels Corkrum Saga
Dr. Kollie was Deputy Minister of Finance for Fiscal Affairs during the period in question and is now Commissioner of Maritime Affairs.
Over the past several days, Liberians both at home and abroad as well as international stakeholders have been debating the pros and cons of the scandal and at least one person named in the audit, Mr. Benjamin Sanvee, Chairman of the opposition Liberty Party announced that he was stepping aside from his position while he cooperates with investigators.
Said Sanvee: “I understand that I am the chairman of the Liberty party and I also know that on May 31, I was called which was even long before the loan was given, the loan was given Sept 23, 2015.”
“I did get a call, but the call I got was not someone as an auditor, I don’t run the day to day of Sanvee holding and I told them I will speak to my brother. I did not set up bogus company; I have worked hard in building my reputation. It is hurtful that people will speak from the position of weakness and not strength.”
Sanvee insisted: “We will not apologize for being Liberian, we received a legitimate loan, and I wasn’t a chairman of the Liberty Party when my family business received the loan, so I’m going to correct the wrong.”
But several of those named in the report are currently out of the country, raising concerns that even after the report has been finalized government may find it difficult to bring many of those hooked to face trial.
As the President and scandal watchers await Dr. Kollie’s return, the saga is reminiscent of another recent scandal involving Ellen Corkrum.
Corkrum was charged along with her fiancé Melvin Johnson for flagrantly disregarding Liberia’s Public Financial Management (PFM) and Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC) laws within three months of Ms. Corkrum’s tenure.
Corkrum, a US-based Liberian female pilot tasked with the responsibility of revamping the Roberts International Airport reportedly attempted to defraud the Liberian government of nearly a quarter million United States dollars leading her dismissal by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In indictments in Liberia, the former LAA head is accused of masterminding a scheme to set up a fake company called Diaspora Consulting Engineering which was heralded as being listed on the New York Stock Exchange with the intention of securing a bid to revamp the Roberts International Airport.
The value of the deal was set in the tone of US$250,000, almost five times more than the fee the previous company hired to perform refurbishing work at the airport.
Corkrum came to Liberia backed with a solid aviation credential and a U.S. military clearance in hopes of giving back to her homeland, a post-war nation emerging from war and was recruited at US$13,000 a month salary with free housing, full relocation cost and monthly round trip business class ticket to the US.
Corkrum’s saga is coming full circle as Liberians weigh in on the PDSI audit controversy.
Escapees Must Return to Answer, CDC Demands
On Monday, Mr. Jefferson Koijee, youth leader of the opposition Coalition for Democratic Change called on the Sirleaf-led government to ensure that all those named in the report and are currently out of the country return home.
Koijee said it is unfair for President Sirleaf to only demand the return of the administrator of the loan and not those named in the report but are also currently out of the country.
In a letter to the President, Mr. Koijee said: “There are others also mentioned in the report, some of whom have left government while others are abroad for studies. They too need to respond.”
“They too need to restitute where necessary and be prosecuted where appropriate. Those outside the nation must be made to return, while those within must remain in Liberia, without travelling to provide explanations in support of every investigatory process required by law.”
While showering praise on the President for standing up to the likes of Dr. James Kollie, Mr. Koijee hoped that the President would do more. “That is why we believe it is important to go further in supporting the findings of the audit.”
Mr. Koijee urged the President to clear bad people from the high offices of power and the state in which they have encamped themselves.
“Those who have engaged in corruption under your watch have betrayed your trust and by extension that of all Liberians. You can count on us to exercise the necessary objectivity and give you all required support where the task constitutes the national good.”
“Liberia’s enemies have for so long felt comfortable in your presence. We must make it clear and uncontested that they would find no refuge within your embrace or ours.”
Mr. Koijee’s comments come as concern is mounting over the fate of two key former officials at the Finance Ministry who are currently out of the country.
Sebastian Muah, former Managing Director of Libtelco and Dede Sandiman, former Acting Comptroller & Accountant General were discovered in the preliminary internal audit report on the Private Sector Development Initiatives (PSDI), as being signatories to an operational account titled Liberia Private Sector Economic Growth (LPSEGF) account (A/C number 001USD21322281101).
The LPSEGF account was opened under the PSDI program.
Investigators reported: “During the review, we observed that PSDI ran an Operational account titled Liberia Private Sector Economic Growth account (A/C number 001USD21322281101). From 2014 to 2016, US$4,111,450.00 was credited to this account at different intervals.”
“Of the US$4,111,450.00, US$1,665,454.91 was transferred to the PSDI loan account for loan disbursements, while the balance of US$2,445,995.09 was withdrawn on multiple checks transactions.”
Investigators attention was particularly drawn to a specific LBDI cheque number 133866, valued US$ 1,648,037.00. “We observed that the cheque was written as debit to the LPSEGF account and correspondingly deposited to another account called GOL Operational account (a/c number 02-2-0530000182) at CBL.”
According to the findings of this report, On January 6, 2014, Mr. Sandiman, in his capacity as Acting Comptroller & Accountant General wrote Mrs. Gloria Menjor, General Manager of LBDI to open at LBDI an account called Liberia Private Sector Economic Growth Fund account (LPSEGF).
Muah and Sandiman were signatories “A” and “B” respectively. The account application form also mentioned Madam Angela Cassell-Bush as signatory to the account but the signature card only carries Muah and Sandiman.
Investigators observed that during the period in which Muah and Sendiman served as signatories to the account, a total amount of US$1,648,037.04 was withdrawn from the LPSEGF account to GOL Operational Account (A/C no. 02/205/300001/82) at CBL.
“On June 24, 2014, LBDI cheque number 133866-valued US$ 1,648,037.00 was withdrawn from LPSEGF account and deposited in GOL Operation Account (number 02-2-0-530000-182). Sebastian Muah and Mr. Dede D. Sandiman signed the cheque, while one Mr. Victor Blama made the deposit. We did not get additional documents to inform us as to how the US$ 1.6M was spent,” the report indicated.
Auditors have been unable to determine how the US$1.6 million was spent and both Muah and Sandiman have been urged to provide documents to support how the amount was spent.
The pair are also to be investigated for the withdrawal of US$63,850.00 from the account. On June 21, 2014, cheque number 133865-valued US$ 63,850.00 signed by former Minister Muah and Dede D. Sandiman was withdrawn by Mandella Boimah.
Muah, Casino Saga Leaves Trail
But with both men out of the country, it is proving difficult to find answers.
Muah, who was forced to resign following a FrontPageAfrica revelation that he had purchased shares in a casino in Bangui, The Central African Republic, reportedly made this PDSI transactions around the same time the payment was made on the casino.
Muah, who had been employed in Government since 2008, claimed when pressed by FrontPageAfrica over the casino ownership that he could not even afford to pay of $50,000 he claimed he owes Wells Fargo Bank in the United States of America.
In his resignation, Muah acknowledged that he had made what he described as “poor judgment”: “My resignation comes in the wake of revelations of poor judgement exhibited in a series of emails exchanges with the editor of FrontPage Africa. For this as a leader and professional, I apologized to the President, the Board of Directors and the Liberian people.”
“Like I did when called upon by the Justice Ministry, I will make myself, my records and whatever is required available upon request to the authorities on the allegations of me investing $250,000 into a casino in Central Africa Republic. I hope we can accelerate this so that my name is cleared and both the country and myself can move on.
“While my income would afford such an investment, I did not invest US$250, 00 into a casino. All I did was give a loan my cousin, a Liberian, US$32,000 behind his idea to get a casino license in Bangui, which he later offered to convert into an equity stake from his shares.”
The Justice Ministry is yet to make public its findings into the Muah controversy.
A further FrontPageAfrica investigation found that two staffers of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) allegedly received bribes to alter the assets statement declared by Muah to reflect statements made recently at his staged press conference, denying ownership of a casino in the Central African Republic.
The alteration of Muah’s assets came in the wake of a Freedom of Information Act request by the FrontPageAfrica Newspaper to the LACC for the disclosure of assets declared by Muah when he entered government and investigation by the Ministry of Justice.
According to the Section 12.34 of the New Penal Code of Liberia, a persons as committed a first degree misdemeanor if he: (a) Knowingly makes a false entry in or false alteration of a government record; or (b) Knowingly and without lawful authority destroys, conceals, removes or otherwise impairs the verity or availability of a government record.
It is unclear what became of the pair since the bribery incident was uncovered.
Sources: Businesses Tied to Muah, Others
On Monday, FrontPageAfrica also gathered from sources closed to the investigation that part of the reason why some of the monies from the loans were not paid back is because several of the companies were owned and operated by Muah and others including a Garson Steel.
“The money was never paid back as far as we know. What we do know is that a deal was worked out with the bank to credit the account when things were heating up,” one source averred Monday.
Another source added that owners of Morake Printing, one of the beneficiaries of the PDSI loan, as late as two days ago, was approached by one Ralph Sankally to print receipts to account for transactions related to the audit. The source said Morake owners were unsettled. Sankally is said to be the Technical Focal Person for Muah. He is now a deputy Minister and said to still be acting as the main conduit for all of Muah’s deals.
It is unclear also why Sirleaf administration officials allowed Muah to leave the country following his dismissal from LIBTELCO. Some were baffled recently when Muah posted a photo on Facebook announcing that a company he manages had been awarded a consultancy contract to manage sensitive data on Liberia relating to the National Elections Commission.
Officials at NEC claimed that the contract was handled by the Liberia Telecommunications Authority and that they had no knowledge as to how Muah’s firm was awarded the contract when he was still under investigation.
Mystery Over Who Allowed Muah to Travel
FrontPageAfrica has been unable to confirm reports that President Sirleaf had ordered Muah’s arrest but that NSA officials had tipped him off not to return to the country.
Muah updated his Linkedin page to say that he is Managing Partner, Consultant and Project Manager for Ateina Solutions LLC, “working with remote team in Liberia to update previous polling systems developed in 2011 for the elections in Liberia and leveraging newer technologies and data analytics to introduce a better predictive model.”
As President Sirleaf await the full audit report on her desk in a couple of weeks, Liberians are keenly watching to see how the saga will unfold as many ponder whether Sirleaf will live up to her pledge of leaving “no stone unturned in the interest of the nation.”