Monrovia – Despite apologizing for what she termed as ‘lapse in judgment’ over the controversial US$1,155,000 sub-lease agreement for the housing of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), FrontPageAfrica has gathered that the three-year lease agreement will be ending in a couple of weeks, but nothing is being done by the LTA to relocate.
Report by Lennart Dodo – [email protected]
Sources have hinted FrontPageAfrica that the chairperson of the LTA, Angelique Weeks, is poised to renew the controversial extravagant lease despite financial and budgetary constraints faced by the government.
“There are some development going on in this regard, but I am not clothed to speak on it at this moment”, LTA Public Relations Officer, Jesse Burphy to FrontPageAfrica.
Our sources hinted us that the property originally belongs to the Weeks family of which the LTA Chairperson is a member. FrontPageAfrica was, however, not able to independently verify this information.
Government in Dire Need of Money
The LTA is considering the renewal of the controversial lease at a time when government is complaining of its inability to raise the FY2016/2017 National Budget without levying additional taxes on citizens.
In its attempt to meet up its financial obligations, the Executive wrote the Legislature to convene a special sitting to pass some austerity measures into law.
But while the Governmental is shifting the toll on citizens, some of its agencies and ministries are heavily engaged in wasteful spending without having any significant impact on lives of the tax payers.
On Thursday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met with members of the Legislature in a joint chamber.
The meeting was held behind closed door; however, FrontPageAfrica was hinted that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the economic situation of the country and measures that could be taken to salvage the economy.
The 2014 Public Outcry
There was much public outcry and anguish when Liberians, already grieved by the rampant corruption that had engulfed the country and making life difficult while slowing down the pace of development, were hit with the news of careless lease agreement signed by the LTA was reported by the FrontPageAfrica in 2014.
FrontPageAfrica reported that LTA Chair had entered into advanced negotiations with a Chinese company, Qingfian International (Lib) Group Development Co. Ltd. (CNQC) to rent its apartment building to house the LTA.
The building is located on the Congo Town back road near the Baptist Church.
Ironically, prior to the signing of the lease agreement, the National Investment Commission turned down an asking price of US$450, 000 per annum for the same building, causing many to wonder why the LTA settled for such a ridiculous offer.
The LTA, whose lease with the Methodist Church, the landlord for one of its offices in Sinkor expired, moved into the controversial new building despite objections from the Ministry of Justice and the Public Procurement Concessions Commission.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was critical of the controversial deal and froze the LTA account. Former Information Minister, at the time described the deal as an error judgment by the LTA.
President Sirleaf at the time also ordered the Ministry Of Justice to nullify the agreement between the LTA and the Chinese company, Qinjina International.
But Weeks argued that she and the LTA followed the PPCC regulations back in 2014. For now it is unclear if the LTA has informed the PPCC about the renewal of the lease contract with the Chinese company.
The PPCC regulations stipulate that the commission should be notified 14 days prior to propose contract awards.
“Pursuant to Section 31(1), Procuring Entities shall give at least fourteen (14) days prior notice to the Commission of proposed awards of procurement contracts when the estimated price of the procurement contracts exceeds the amount…; in the case of contract for procurement services (the amount at) US$100,000,” states the PPCC regulations.
The Presdent’s Anguish
Embarrassed by the report of wasteful spending, President Sirleaf, after reviewing the lease agreement and noticing that all the required processes were unscrupulously followed and observed, ordered a freeze on the accounts of the LTA, and suspended the US$1 million lease agreement.
The President through an Executive Mansion statement ordered a full investigation into all standing contracts between the Ministry of Public Works and construction companies in the country.
Though the lease agreement is coming to an end, there has been no update why the telecommunications regulatory agency committed the government to such a whopping sum which some industry observers say, could have been put toward the construction of a new building.
But even amid the waste acknowledged by President Sirleaf, Weeks maintained that the entity did nothing wrong to have entered into the US$1.15 million lease agreement with the Chinese company.
Weeks, according to media reports, met with President Sirleaf in 2014 and quietly made detailed presentation.
Ample documentation and acknowledged that she should have informed the President of the proposed move rather than have her find out in the press.
The lease agreement was also signed by the Ministries of Finance and Justice, in keeping with law.
Prior to the agreement, LTA reportedly sent a letter dated November 15, 2013 to the Public Procurement and Concessions Commissions (PPCC), giving notice of the LTA’s intent to award the contract to CNQC.
Records show that the letter to PPCC was received and signed for on November 20, 2013.
“Consistent with best financial management practices, the concept of relevant costing was used as a basis for making an informed decision,” a source within LTA told a local daily back 2014.
Eager to Raise Funds
The LTA is said to be one of those who will benefit from the one cent per minute tax being levied on Liberians. A percentage of amounts accrued would be going to the LTA as a means of sustaining itself and acquiring equipment needed to monitor the sector.
However, Cellcom GSM, one of the biggest GSM Companies in Liberia which offers a three-day unlimited call offer for US$1.00 has kicked against the campaign, noting that the extra tax would make communication expensive for the citizens.
As the Government now intends to use tax on calls to raise its FY 2016/2017 National Budget, the House of Representatives in their special sitting have passed the act and it’s now awaiting concurrence from the Senate.
Litany of Corrupt Acts
For a good portion of the ten years President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been in office, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority has been awash in allegations of corruption, mismanagement and gross waste of taxpayers’ funds.
In 2009, Mr. Albert Bropleh was charged and prosecuted for acts of corruption.
Bropleh, chair of the LTA at the time, was ordered arrested and charged with economic sabotage, misapplication of entrusted property and Criminal Conspiracy, violating the Public Procurement and Concession Commission-PPCC in a Competitive bidding process.
Multiple sources confirmed in 2014 that the telecommunications regulator had embarked on a scheme tailor-made to allegedly dispose of tax-payers’ assets on several properties purchased by the government of Liberia, including vehicles, generators, office supplies and other accessories.
But the authority’s head, responding via email to FrontPageAfrica defended the disposal scheme, stating that the assets were sold to a cross-section of persons, including Commissioners, Directors, Generator Technicians, Security and other staff.
“The assets recommended for disposal were inspected by the GSA’s Asset Disposal Unit. Based on its assessment report, the GSA determined the nominal price for each asset. These assets have outlived their useful and economic lives”.
Ms. Weeks explained that fixed assets were a major resource available to the LTA and were of value if they continue to cost-effectively support the execution of LTA’s statutory mandate and/or delivery of its services.
“Where an assessment shows that an asset no longer plays a viable role in supporting the operations of the LTA, it’s worth lies only in the benefit(s) to be gained from its disposal.”
But some insiders said, the assets auctioned out for cheap were never advertised and second tier staff were not allowed to purchase. But Weeks insisted that the assets were sold to a cross-section of persons, including Commissioners, Directors, Generator Technicians, Security and other staff.
“The assets recommended for disposal were inspected by the GSA’s Asset Disposal Unit. Based on its assessment report, the GSA determined the nominal price for each asset. These assets have outlived their useful and economic lives; the continuous cost of repairs and maintenance was uneconomical.”
The relevant provision of the GOL’s Property Disposal Guidelines, according to Weeks, indicates that if the obsolete assets are to be disposed of via a nominal price to an individual, entity, pre-selected non-governmental organization at a fixed/agreed price, no commercial bidding is required.
“Hence, the decision of the LTA to not publish the items for sale”.
Ms. Weeks explained that the LTA conducted an assessment of its fixed assets several years ago.
“On the basis of the findings (age of assets, high maintenance costs, obsolescence, etc.), decided to make a request to the Ministry of Finance for authorization to convene an Assets Disposal Committee, pursuant to Section 123 of the Amended and Restated Public Procurement and Concessions Act 2010.
In October 2014, the Ministry of Finance authorized the LTA to convene a Disposal Committee. Based on this approval by the Ministry of Finance, the LTA on November 04, 2014 constituted an Assets Disposal Committee that was chaired by Mr. T. Reagan Scott, our Internal Auditor.”
Madam Weeks says after months of work, on February 9, 2015, the Assets Disposal Committee submitted its report to the LTA Board of Commissioners (BoC).
“The report provides categories of assets to be disposed of, benefits of disposal, reasons and the recommended methods of disposal. The assets disposal was reviewed and approved by the Board of Commissioners.”
The LTA boss added that subsequently, in September 2015, the government, through the General Services Agency (GSA), adopted the GSA Standard Policy Property Disposal Guidelines.
“In compliance with relevant provisions of this Policy, in January 2016, the retired fixed assets report was forwarded to the General Services Agency (GSA) for appropriate action. Upon receipt of the report, the GSA authorized its Assets Disposal Unit to work along with the LTA in disposing of the retired and obsolete assets.”
The LTA boss was, however, unable to explain whether the price the items were sold for was determined “nominal” price per item, by market analysis or by the commissioners or asset disposal committee.
It is also unclear whether those senior management level officials were part of setting the “nominal prices” received some of the assets and why the LTA decided to do a private auction and not a public auction.