The List: Meet Witnesses That Could Decide Fate of Liberian Officials Accused of Bribery


Monrovia – The long-anticipated bribery scandal trial spurred by a 2016 report by the London-based watchdog group, Global Witness (GW) kicked off this week in Liberia, ending months of back-and-forth legal wrangles between government prosecutors and the accused officials named in the GW investigative findings.

Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

Deciphering the figures and personalities, which could make or break the Latest high profile corruption saga in Liberia  – See Witness List

The Global Witness exposé  uncovered more than US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments by UK mining firm Sable Mining and its Cllr. Varney Sherman, former head of the ruling Unity Party.

The report, dubbed The Deceivers  showed how in 2010 Sable hired Sherman in an effort to secure one of Liberia’s last large mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession in northern Liberia.

Sherman told Sable that in order to obtain the contract the company must first get Liberia’s concessions law changed by bribing senior officials, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

The account is backed up by leaked emails and company documents seen by Global Witness.

Besides Cllr. Sherman, several former and current officials of both the executive and legislative branches of government are named. A few have been forced to resign their position as a result of the saga which is being ranked among the major scandals in recent Liberian history.

Alex Tyler was the influential speaker of the House of Representatives until he was forced out.

The report claimed that Tyler received US$75,000 in consultancy fees.

Willie Belleh, Chair of the Public Procurement Concessions Commission, also accused of receiving US$10,000 in consultancy fees, also recently announced his resignation in the aftermath of the scandal.

Richard Tolbert, a former chair of the National Investment Commission(NIC) reportedly received US$50,000 while Senator Morris Saytumah is said to have received US$50,000 also in consultancy fees. Tolbert is also listed as receiving US$20,000 as a donation to the Invincible XI football team for which is president.

Mr. Sumo Kupee, Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company(LPRC) is pinned down for receiving US$5000 as was former Grand Kru Senator Cletus Wotorson.

Ernest CB Jones, a former Deputy Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy is pinned down for US$4,500 in addition to a separate amount of US$500,000 along with his former boss, Dr. Eugene Shannon, who have been identified as Big Boy I and Big Boy II.

Nearly all have been charged with Criminal facilitation, criminal solicitation, criminal conspiracy and economic sabotage.

On Thursday, all pleaded not guilty.

The defendants Senator H. Varney G. Sherman (UP, Grand Cape Mount); Rep. Alex Tyler(Bomi); Richard Tolbert, Christopher Hayes Onanauga, Senator Morris Saytumah, Eugene Shannon and E.C.B. Jones – in one accord responded “Not Guilty”, marking their second full appearance in court.

The court reluctantly granted the defendants resistance to no jury trial. Judge Yarmie Gbeisay denied the state request for jury trial. It is a bench trial which is the judge will serve as jury and judge

The start of the trial this week answered one of the important questions many have been trying to decipher: How will the government of Liberia prove the case against the accused? But most importantly who are the witnesses behind the bombshell report expected to bring down some of the most powerful officials in Liberia today.

A copy of the witness list submitted by prosecutors this week, obtained by FrontPageAfrica showed that some 25 persons have been identified as potential witnesses.

Among them, former officials of Sable Mining, a British Journalist, a local Liberian economist with past ties to Sable as well as several officials from local, auditing, investigative and anti-graft agencies.

A FrontPageAfrica investigative report runs down the list submitted by government prosecutors to the court and gathers insight into who the witnesses are and what court-watchers and legal observers can expect in the coming weeks of what is expected to be a complicated case of intrigue and legal maneuvers.

Van Niekerk Heads Witness List

Perhaps the most crucial of all the witnesses may be Heine Van Niekerk. The former CEO of Delta Mining Consolidated (DMC) who had a long partnership with Andrew Grove, Chief Executive Officer of Sable Mining until the pair fell out.

Groves has repeatedly expressed no wrong doing and claims that the corruption investigation was politically motivated. But it is Van Niekerk’s testimony and memory of his Sable ties, that could prove to be the most damaging against the allegations of bribery because of his connection to Groves.

The bitter fallout led to a 2012 legal wrangle which led to Van Niekerk being dismissed as Delta CEO, following the conclusion of an independently chaired disciplinary enquiry set up to investigate allegations of theft of intellectual property from DMC. Van Niekerk had founded DMC in 2000 with a family trust Avalon ownership of 34.5%.

Delta was a Johannesburg-based mining company which had earlier won a $1.6 billion iron ore project for Liberia’s Western Cluster.

The Western Cluster in which Delta was involved comprised the former National Iron Ore Company (NIOC) situated at Mano River Kongo, Grand Cape Mount County; the Bea Mountains in Gbarpolu County, and the LMC at Tubmanburg, Bomi County.

The concession was later taken from Delta following an investigative report by FrontPageAfrica in which leaked emails found that Mr. Willis Knuckles, a former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs has signed an agreement guaranteeing Delta and two other bidders the concession if they each gave him ten percent ownership.

At the time, Van Niekerk said the dispute should not be seen in the context of a broader legal dispute between Sable and DMC on the one hand, and himself and Avalon on the other. He stated that Sable had sought to gain unimpeded control of DMC by attempting to have him dismissed as CEO on “false charges” that he removed files relating to the company.

It is those files, FrontPageAfrica has learned, which may be at the center of the leaks that has rocked Groves and Sable.

Witness Nigel Morgan Key

Another key witness listed is Mr. Nigel Morgan. Morgan previously served as a Director of Delta Mining Consolidated Ltd which later changed into Sable. 

Today, he is an independent business risk consultant to European and North American based financial institutions and multinational corporations focusing on political and security related risks to business operations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Morgan’s testimony is crucial to the case against the accused in part due to his long-ties to Andrew Groves, the architect of Sable.

Morgan has never hidden his displeasure over the manner in which the Delta contract was cancelled.

He previously filed a complaint against the Liberian government in which he said he was representing Van Neikerk.

Morgan claims in a recent report that the Liberian Government after short-listing Delta as favorites to win the Western Cluster iron ore project abruptly canceled the bid, citing “improprieties” during the bidding process. But government did not only cancel the bidding process, it also blacklisted Delta and another mining company, Tata Steel, from participating in a rebidding process.

Morgan in a published report reportedly told a gathering in Pretoria that the Liberian government’s statement that Delta acted with impropriety, damaged the company’s financial and moral standing with its partners.

According to Morgan, Delta’s partners which included South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), AMB Capital of Johannesburg, Canaccord Adams of London and Mirabaud of Geneva, were no longer interested in the Liberia project because of the scandal.

Morgan reportedly noted that Shannon, who has been revealed as Big Boy I, promised Delta all along that they would have won the bid.

Morgan said Minister Shannon had milked Delta of nearly $1million to get the deal sealed, with Delta having made the last $75,000 at the very time the bid was being canceled. 

“Of course, we are not stupid. There is a lot of paper trail – emails and bank statements. Minister Shannon will be exposed. Your government will be exposed,” Morgan is quoted as saying.

But with lawsuit threats from Delta end against the Liberian government, a settlement was reached after which the government under pressure and fearing a lengthy legal battle, apologized to Delta, reversing its earlier statement that the mining company had bent the rules.

It was agreed that Delta would be included in the rebidding process and it the government failed to reach a consensus on the above two conditions, Delta would sue the Liberian government.

It is believing that it was this discussion that led to the transformation of Delta into Sable Mining.

Witness Pieter Botha Consulted Sable

Another witness listed, Pieter Botha worked as a consultant to Sable but is currently a Senior Manager, Business Improvement at Gold Fields in Johannesburg. He is responsible for the company’s mining operations in Africa, Europe and Middle East (AEM).

According to the company’s website, Botha has vast experience on deep and shallow mining environments including massive and narrow tabular mining methods.

He has also led a number of mining projects on a wide range of commodities including platinum, base metals, gold, manganese and diamonds.

Pieter gained production experience on Mponeng (deep level gold) and Black Mountain Mine (base metal massive mining).

His experience on a number of projects includes: mining engineering, project management, due diligence studies, technical and reserve audits.

He has studied various projects from conceptual level up to a detailed feasibility level.

Guardian Journalist Set to Testify

The list also includes journalist Simon Goodley, a business reporter for the UK-based Guardian newspaper who has been on the heels of the report since it was unveiled by Global Witness.

Goodley reported in May 2016 that Sable admitted to receiving emails at the center of the bribery allegations.

Wrote Goodley: “Sable confirmed to the Guardian that it funded the account and that the email had been received by Groves and Heine van Niekerk, who it described as “the de facto chief operating officer for Sable in west Africa”.

Van Niekerk was dismissed from the Liberia division in 2012 for “theft of intellectual property”, just a month before he took Sable to court over a dispute involving him selling Sable a different Liberia mining business.

Witness Klaus Piprek Crucial

Klaus Piprek, who ran much of Sable’s operations in Monrovia is also named as a government witness.

Like Van Niekerk, he too is said to have fallen out of favor with Grove. Piprek, whose official title was country director of Sable in Liberia, has indicted and is said to be subject to an Interpol alert along with Grove.

Piprek willingly agreed to testify for prosecutors and is expected to validate reports that monies were paid to the officials under indictment.  

Piprek told investigators that in 2008 or 2009, he was contacted by Van Niekerk and asked to join Delta Mining DMC to set up a business in Liberia for the purpose of mining the Western Cluster.

He stated that he was later introduced to Groves in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He along with Groves came to Liberia in April of 2010 on a private chartered plane which landed at Roberts International Airport.

Mr. Piprek recalls that he observed Mr. Groves carrying a vanity case. At some point on the drive from the airport, Mr. Groves opened the case and remarked to Piprek, “this is what half a million dollars look like.”

According to the indictment, Piprek told investigators that upon arrival at the airport, they were picked up by someone he did not know and at some point, went for dinner at where turned out to be Eugene Shannon’s residence.

Shannon then Minister of Lands Mines and Energy and E. C. B. Jones his deputy entertained the guests. Shannon had previously told investigators that he had no contact with Sable Mining.

The investigators found that on April 14, 2010, Andrew Groves, Klaus Piprek and Heine Van Niekerk did board a private jet, Flight #S000, aircraft call sign ZSLAC, from South Africa and flew to Liberia as special guests of the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.

Aboard that plane, Groves carried a Vanity case which he displayed inflight as containing five hundred thousand United States Dollars (US$500,000).

Global Witness Testimony Key

Expect also to see at some point during the trial, witnesses from the London-based watchdog group, Global Witness on whose report the scandal was unraveled.

Key among those likely to take the stand as witnesses are Daniel Balint-Kurti, head of special investigations at Global Witness and Jonathan Gant, the organization’s campaign leader.

Balint-Kurti notes in the Deceiver: “Sable was able to bribe many of Liberia’s top politicians, which is trying to turn the page on 14 years of civil war, corruption and most recently Ebola.

This kind of corruption deprives a long-suffering population of the benefits of their resources.

The case needs to be investigated and punished if the Liberia government wants its anti-corruption fight to be taken seriously – its people deserve better.”

Samuel P. Jackson in Witness Seat

Another witness for the prosecution is Samuel P. Jackson, a noted Liberian economist who previously served as a consultant for Sable Mining.

Jackson and Sable severed ties over the company’s bid for the Western Cluster concession which the government later awarded to Elenilto.

Van Niekerk told a news conference in Monrovia in 2012 that Sable terminated Jackson contract.

Said Van Niekerk: “Mr. Sam Jackson has performed well under his contract with Sable, but it has become clear to us that his other activities, especially his attacks on the process that led to naming Elenilto as the preferred bidder for the Western Clusters, is the sources of the unwarranted, false and malicious attacks on Sable in the media.

To stop the unfounded and baseless media attacks on Sable, its directors and our interests in West Africa, we have terminated the consultancy agreement Mr. Jackson had with us.

We regret taking this action, but we have determined that those who sponsor the malicious and false accusations against Sable, its interests and its directors, would not cease to do so once Mr. Jackson continues as a Sable consultant.  Our best wishes go with Mr. Jackson and, in this public manner; we thank him for his invaluable services.”

At the time, Cllr. Sherman took swipe at Jackson, suggesting that if Mr. Jackson’s call was a personal venture as a Liberian citizen then, the media must be blamed for indicating in their articles that he may have been doing so on behalf of Sable.

Cllr. Sherman like Sable CEO believes that attacks on the company can only be aborted should the company ask Jackson to leave.

The company’s lawyer also took jabs at several publications which published verbatim similar attacks on Sable, suggesting that the reports were paid and planted in certain newspaper.

Jackson had persistently maintained that Elenilto Mining Limited, the company that applied for the Western Cluster in 2008 and won it, does not have both the technical and financial capacity to carry to mining in Liberia, an argument that Elenilto has since rubbished.

For Sable, the departure from Jackson while heartbreaking was a necessity. Van Niekerk said Sable will miss Jackson for his professional and technical skills and the invaluable contributions he has made to the company over the period he has worked as consultant of Sable.

Mr. Niekerk, said the company was taking the action because the calls from Mr. Jackson that Elenilto is not qualified to do mining in Liberia seemed to have suggested that his company was behind the campaign, adding “when in fact we have no interest whatsoever in the Western Cluster.”

“Mr. Sam Jackson has performed well under his contract with Sable, but it has become clear to us that his other activities, especially his attacks on the process that led to naming Elenilto as the preferred bidder for the Western Clusters, is the sources of the unwarranted, false and malicious attacks on Sable in the media.” Sable CEO told the media.

To stop the unfounded and baseless media attacks on Sable, Niekerk said, “Its directors and our interests in West Africa, we have terminated the consultancy agreement Mr. Jackson had with us.

We regret taking this action, but we have determined that those who sponsor the malicious and false accusations against Sable, its interests and its directors, would not cease to do so once Mr. Jackson continues as a Sable consultant.  Our best wishes go with Mr. Jackson and, in this public manner; we thank him for his invaluable services.”

“We reiterate that Sable has no interest in derailing Elenilto’s negotiations with the Liberian Government for the Western Clusters. Delta Mining Consolidated Pty, now a subsidiary of Sable, by agreement with the Liberian Government, disengaged from any involvement with the Western Clusters.

We have honored that agreement and we will continue to honor that agreement.” Mr. Niekerk said at the Thursday Press Conference.

Former Sherman Prodigy Withdrawn From List

Until Thursday, the most controversial witness listed was Cllr. Johnny Momoh, a legal counsel for embattled former speaker Alex J. Tyler.

However, his name was stripped off the list when he made a submission to the court that he couldn’t serve as witness for the state on grounds that he was never informed by the state.

“Your honor, I’m seeing my name as a witness and I have no idea because the state didn’t inform me.”

Momoh, interestingly, practiced law for years at the law firm of Sherman and Sherman and may have insights as to the inner workings of that law firm during the period 2010 when the alleged bribery and conspiracy is said to have occurred.

Cllr Momoh left Sherman and Sherman in or about 2014 amidst employment dispute and is currently up against his old law firm in the labor court claiming unspecified damages and liar wages. His bio is still posted on the Sherman & Sherman Law Firm website.

Additionally, several other witnesses have been lined up to aid the prosecution.

Mr. Sam Russ, Deputy Minister for Operations at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy is expected to provide knowledge of mineral assets at the center of the allegations. Cllr.  Sherman had previously said the Wologizi is not a prized asset.

Baker Tilly, the accountant who reportedly blew the whistle is also penciled in as witness. Several investigators from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission of Liberia and the Liberia Revenue Authority are also expected to testify on behalf of the government.

Peter Botha, CEO of African Medical Investments plc located the mining province of Tete in South Africa. A FrontPageAfrica investigation have found that the company developed a partnership with Sable whose subsidiary owed the Group US$ 14,858 in 2010.

Botha is in the picture because African Medical shareholders were fleeced by Groves who sold the London-listed company an asset at an inflated price and siphoning off the difference.

Botha is quoted in the Deceivers as saying: “The transaction was an elaborate and deceitful fraud,” wrote Peter Botha, African Medical’s current chief executive, in a May 2013 sworn statement. Edmonds and Groves told Global Witness that it was legal and “in the best interests of shareholders”. 

In its report, Global Witness questioned transactions within African Medical Investments, an upmarket African hospital chain, created by Edmonds and Groves. 

They include one deal where the leaked documents show that in February 2010 – when Edmonds was chairman and Groves a director – the company purchased a Dassault Falcon 20 private jet for $3.1m – by acquiring the shares of its South African owner Caramix (Pty) Ltd, itself owned by a British Virgin Islands firm.

The plane had been transferred to Caramix from Camec, another Edmonds and Groves business venture. The documents also show that Camec had acquired the aircraft for $1.9m in 2009.

In its 2011-12 annual report, the firm admitted it had “significantly” over-estimated what the plane was worth before revealing that African Medical sold the subsidiary that owned the Falcon for $1.3m in 2012 – so at a loss to the company of $1.8m.

A spokeswoman for Edmonds and Groves said: “There is no reason to believe that [the Falcon purchase] constituted a ‘related party transaction’ as defined by the AIM [Alternative Investment Market] rules” – and added that those claims were investigated and dismissed by lawyers appointed by the independent director.

She added that no close relatives of Edmonds and Groves benefited from the deal, but declined to say if the beneficiaries were extended family members.

Famous SA Investigator Tapped

Another noted personality tipped as a prosecution witness is Paul Sullivan, a famous South African forensic investigator renowned for his book, To Catch a Cop, an account of his role in helping nail South Africa’s most powerful policeman Jackie Selebi.

Selebi is a former police chief and head of Interpol. Sullivan’s account was based on thousands of pages of e-mails, statements, affidavits, letters, press reports, court records, and transcripts as well as interviews providing a perspective from his point of view as a key player in the saga. He is said to have a well-grounded knowledge of Groves and Sable operations over the years.

Eric Devilliers, a South African pilot who may have also worked for a mining company with ties to Sable in Central Africa, is also tapped as a witness.

It is unclear whether Devilliers is the pilot who flew the private jet on April 14, 2010, on which Andrew Groves, Klaus Piprek and Heine Van Niekerk flew to Liberia as special guests of the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.

According to the indictment, aboard that plane, Groves carried a Vanity case which he displayed inflight as containing five hundred thousand United States Dollars (US$500,000).

Local Witnesses Lineup

FrontPageAfrica has been unable to find out much about Tandy Botha, another South African listed as a witness. However, he is said to be a lawyer Van Niekerk who facilitated communications amongst officials at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.

Aaron H. Aboah, Baba M. Borkai, Marc N. Kollie, Daniel Woart Ijaz E. Mason, Pius Sonpon, Samuel Peterson and Augustine Mehn from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and D. Blamo Kofa, from the Liberia Revenue Authority. Kofa, previously worked on the case when he was employed by the LACC.

A witness listed only as Nigel is said to be the deputy chief operating officer of Sable Mining. Fred Snorton is an expert witness who is expected to testify on the chain of emails.

Lawrence Clark, another witness listed is said to have knowledge of the bribery payments and most of the transaction were discussed with him.

Great Expectations Looms

For Sable, the case could expose serious feud between Groves and Van Niekerk, once good friends and business partners whose relationship soured as their Liberia operations fell apart.

Van Niekerk, in particular has been unhappy over the manner in which Groves banished him with a dismissal in 2012 for of all things “theft of intellectual property”. Although his dismissal was ruled unfair in 2013 by South Africa’s Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, Groves has quietly told aides and whoever will listen that Groves is behind the leaks.

For the immediate future, the legal intricacies of the trial will no doubt offer Liberians a clearer picture of how the allegations against the accused came together.

For the foreseeable future, however, a case that may go down in history as one of the most damning indictment of corruption in high places could offer a final litmus test for UP-led government’s anti-graft stance.

Depending on which way the trial sway, a lot may be riding on the Sirleaf-led government’s legacy as a world of sceptics’ eagerly await the climax of one of the biggest cases in recent memory.