MONROVIA – Ahead of the 2023 general and presidential elections in Liberia, the United States government, through its Ambassador accredited near Monrovia, Michael McCarthy, has again warned individuals and financial institutions against doing business with former and current officials of the Government of Liberia (GOL) who have been sanctioned by its Treasury Department.
The former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill, Solicitor General Cyrennius Cephus and the Director of the National Port Authority (NPA) Bill Tweahway for acts of corruption. The sanctions fall under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
By Obediah Johnson
Others sanctioned include: Senators Varney Sherman and Prince Johnson of Grand Cape Mount and Nimba counties respectively.
Despite the sanctions imposed on him, Mr. McGill has been aligning with former and current government officials to support his candidacy for a seat in the Liberian Senate, while Senators Sherman and Johnson are also seeking re-election.
But addressing a news conference at the US Embassy in Monrovia on Monday, November 14, Ambassador McCarthy pointed out financial institutions and others would subject themselves to sanctions also if they continue to do business with these sanctioned ex and current government officials.
According to him, the US government will also carry out enforcement actions against institutions or individuals that are involved.
“I also want to note that it was three months ago, almost to the day, that I announced to you in this room the Treasury Department’s Global Magnisky sanctions of Nathaniel McGill, Bill Tweahway, and Syrenius Cephus. I think it’s important to draw our attention back to the Treasury Department’s statement, specifically its notification that persons that engage in certain transactions with these sanctioned individuals “may themselves be exposed to sanctions or subject to an enforcement action.””
“Furthermore, unless an exception applies, any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of the individuals or entities could be subject to US sanctions.”
He pointed out that the warning from the US government also applies to Senators Varney Sherman and Prince Y. Johnson, who have also been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department under the Magnisky Act.
Ambassador McCarthy pointed out that though the sanctioned imposed on the five individuals are not directly on the Liberian government; anyone supporting these sanctioned former and current government officials “may be opened to sanctions themselves.”
He said the action against the five men is not a prosecutorial action, but the US feels that it has the “right and obligation” to stop people from abusing democracy and engaging into acts of corruption.
He noted that the US government has strong evidences which show that the sanctioned officials committed the acts that they were accused of, but it left with the government and people of Liberia to follow processes to prosecute them.
“We don’t want them in America spending stolen money and if it’s there, we’re going to freeze it. But it’s not so much about prosecution; that’s up to processes in Liberia. Am I disappointed that nothing is going to happen to Varney Sherman or Prince Johnson-that’s really up to the Liberian people to decide.”
Will not support NEC?
There has been mounting calls from civil society actors for the National Elections Commission (NEC) to reject the nomination of sanctioned current and former officials of the Liberian government who are planning to contest the pending 2023 elections.
The citizens want these individuals to focus on clearing their names from acts of corruption, instead of using stolen funds to canvass and win the minds of the electorates.
When quizzed whether or not the US government will support the NEC if it accepts the nomination of any of the sanctioned former and present government officials, Ambassador McCarthy said: “we do support the NEC until they give us reason not to support them.”
According to him, the US government will continue to render assistance to the commission as a viable and independent organization conducting free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections.
“It’s true that they (sanctioned officials) never had their day in court; it’s very important for Liberians to them to task but look at what the Treasury Department said about them. There were specifics about some of the allegations.”
Ambassador McCarthy maintained that the US government believes that these ex and current sanctioned officials have reached a level of corruption and disruption to the democratic process even though the voters have the right to elect the leaders of their choice.
“We feel very confident that if anyone did a real investigation, they will find the evidence. The allegations were all in the press.”
McGill, according to the US Treasury Department bribed business owners, received bribes from potential investors, and accepted kickbacks for steering contracts to companies in which he has an interest. McGill has manipulated public procurement processes in order to award multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which he has ownership, including by abusing emergency procurement processes to rig contract bids. McGill is credibly accused of involvement in a wide range of other corrupt schemes including soliciting bribes from government office seekers and misappropriating government assets for his personal gain. He has used government funds allocated to other Liberian government institutions to run his own projects, made off-the-books payments in cash to senior government leaders, and organized warlords to threaten political rivals. McGill has received an unjustified stipend from various Liberian government institutions and used his position to prevent his misappropriation from being discovered. McGill regularly distributes thousands of dollars in undocumented cash to other government officials for government and non-government activities.
McGill was designated for being a foreign person who is a current government official (now former) who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.
Cephus reportedly developed close relationships with suspects of criminal investigations and has received bribes from individuals in exchange for having their cases dropped. Cephus has worked behind the scenes to establish arrangements with subjects of money laundering investigations to cease investigations in order to personally benefit financially. He shielded money launderers and helps clear them through the court system and intimidated other prosecutors in an attempt to quash investigations. Cephus also utilized his position to hinder investigations and block the prosecution of corruption cases involving members of the government. Cephus has been accused of tampering with and purposefully withholding evidence in cases involving members of opposition political parties to ensure conviction.
He was designated for being a foreign person who is a current government official (now former) who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.
Twehway orchestrated the diversion of $1.5 million in vessel storage fee funds from the NPA into a private account. Twehway secretly formed a private company to which, through his position at the NPA, he later unilaterally awarded a contract for loading and unloading cargo at the Port of Buchanan. The contract was awarded to the company less than a month after its founding. Twehway and others used family members to obfuscate their own involvement in the company while still benefitting financially from the company.
Twehway was designated for being a foreign person who is a current government official who is responsible for or complicit in or has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.
In December 2021, Senator Sherman, according to the U.S. Government, allegedly offered bribes to be set free from a bribery case he and some other top government officials in Liberia, including former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex J. Tyler, were connected to.
Global Witness, a British corruption watchdog, in 2015, alleged that Sable Mining Company, through Cllr. Varney Sherman, the company’s legal representative, and his colleagues conspired to circumvent the law in order for the company to get a concession to mine the Wologisi Mountain in Lofa without going through a competitive bidding process.
“Varney Sherman, now a prominent lawyer, Liberian Senator, and chair of the Liberian Senate Judiciary Committee, offered bribes to multiple judges associated with his trial for 2010 bribery scheme, and he had an undisclosed conflict of interest with judge who ultimately returned a not guilty verdict in July 2019,” the release said.
“In the 2010 scheme that led to his trial, Sherman was hired by a British Mining company in an effort to obtain one of Liberia’s last mining assets, the Wologisi iron ore concession. Sherman advised the company that, in order to obtain the contract, they first had to get Liberia’s procurement and concession law changed by bribing senior officials,” the U.S. Government further noted.
It added: “In 2016, Sherman was indicted by the Liberian government, along to several government officials, for their involvement in the US$950,000 bribery scheme.”
Senator Johnson was sanctioned for being involved into “pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment.”
Pay-for-play, sometimes pay-to-play or P2P, is a phrase used for a variety of situations in which money is exchanged for services or the privilege to engage in certain activities.
Additionally, the US government maintained that Senator Johnson receives an undeserved salary from the GOL as a salaried intelligence “source” though he does not provide any form of intelligence reporting to the government.
According to the Americans, Johnson is reportedly being paid in order to maintain domestic stability.
“As part of the scheme, upon receiving funding from the Government of Liberia (GOL), the involved government ministries and organizations launder a portion of the funding for return to the involved participants. The pay-for-play funding scheme involves millions of U.S. dollars. Johnson has also offered the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money,” the US government stated.
It added: “Johnson is designated pursuant to E.O. 13818 for being a foreign person who is a current or former government official, or a person acting for or on behalf of such an official, who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.”
Last week, the National Population and Housing Census (NPHC) failed to commence smoothly due to the failure of authorities of the Liberia Institute for Statistic and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS) to provide “sitting fee” of US$50 each and equipment for the thousands of enumerators and supervisors they recruited for the exercise.
Those recruited boycotted the commencement of the census in Montserrado and other parts of the country, experiencing doubts over their payment following the end of the 14-day census.
The ongoing census in Liberia is long overdue. It was last conducted in 2008 during the administration of ex Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
It has suffered multiple setbacks, ranging from reported acts of rampant corruption involving authorities at LISGIS, lack of funding, poor planning over the time frame, methods, training of enumerators, among others.
Enumerator trainings were conducted across the country with the government, through LISGIS failing to provide food, water and sitting fee for those who attended.
Government’s action prompted series of protests in some parts of the country. Those protests obstructed the movement of motorists and pedestrians and jeopardized normal working academic and other activities.
But Ambassador McCarthy maintained that despite these issues and hiccups which characterized the start, the census has begun and is ongoing.
He observed that the exercise is an important, non-political action required in the Liberian constitution.
He further called on opposition politicians in the country to “ask their supports not to disrupt the census.”
Ambassador McCarthy said the ongoing census, which the US is also supporting, will contribute towards the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections come 2023.
“It is so important for Liberia to have this census, get it done, and do it right. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s very important for the census to move forward.”
US not recalling old currency
Recently, it was widely circulated in the Liberian media that the US government was recalling its old bank notes that are in circulation around the world, including Liberia.
But Ambassador McCarthy disclosed that the news is false and misleading.
“Regarding US currency being recalled, this is a rumor that sometimes makes the rounds and is completely false. The United States treasury has always stressed that despite new designs in our currency, the old bills in circulation remain legal tender.”
Quoting the US Treasury during the launch of its US$100 bank note released in 2011, Ambassador McCarthy called on users of the US currency to know that they will not have to trade their older design notes when the new ones begin circulating.
Call for honest media coverage
Ambassador McCarthy further recounted the significant roles the media continue to play in pursuing government to uphold accountability and combating against disinformation in the Liberian society.
He emphasized that journalists are essential to a functioning democracy, and as such, the US government looks forward to what he called the “honest coverage” of the media ahead of the 2023 elections.
“Your presence here, month after month, and the work you do every day, is surely a positive indicator of the dedication to press freedom and transparency.”
On Punch FM
On September 26, the Supreme Court of Liberia rendered its ruling in a case involving the Government of Liberia and One Media Incorporated (Punch FM) following years of legal battles.
The government had earlier refused to allow the station, which is owned by one of its fiercest critics, Patrick Honnah, to operate, despite the acquisitions of all legal documents.
Ambassador McCarthy commended the Supreme Court of Liberia for its ruling.
He observed that despite meeting media licensing requirements under the law of Liberia in 2018, Punch FM had to go through a number of legal challenges to be allowed on air.
He termed as a “win for free speech and press freedom in Liberia and a demonstration of judicial independence the ruling from the court, allowing Punch FM to operate.
Focus on investing in people
Liberia was among 66 countries that passed the MCC after passing 12 of the 20 indicators recently.
Ambassador McCarthy congratulated the government for passing the 2023 Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) scorecard for the first time since 2018.
According to him, Liberia has made significant progress, especially in the area of controlling inflation,
However, he urged the government to focus on the indicators under the “investing in people category”, which include health, education and natural resource protection.
“This could make Liberia more competitive for a potential second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact.”
Ambassador McCarthy disclosed that though the post-conflict nation has passed the indicators, the Board of the MCC will next month, December determines Liberia’s eligibility for the compact.
Liberia’s future with citizens
For her part, the visiting Acting Assistant Secretary of Global Public Affairs (GPA) Elizabeth Trudeau observed that Liberians, including media practitioners feel very positive of their country.
She said the future of the post-conflict nation remains in the hands of the citizens.
“The way the future shape here is going to be up to the people of Liberia. The United States is proud to be a partner.”
She cautioned against the spreading of disinformation which has the proclivity of fueling disunity in the society, and urged the Liberian media to always check their reports before publication.
“In a country like Liberia, the role of the media cannot be understated. You are not only the citizens’ voice, expressing their concerns, but you are also their ears. You listen to them and you help them articulate what is important to them.”
She described journalists as those at the “frontline of democracy keeping the government accountable and honest.”
She said the media and members of civil society organizations have the passion to make Liberia a better nation.
Madam Trudeau noted that the US government, which has already invested more than US$5B in Liberia, will continue to remain supportive of the nation and its people, despite reports that the US is not supporting the nation.
“People can be confident in US support of Liberia. We will be confident in supporting the people of Liberia.”
Madam Trudeau, however, expressed the hope that Liberians will elect their leaders in free, fair and transparent elections in 2023.
“Liberia has had free, fair and transparent elections. We believe in the people of Liberia and their faith and trust for democracy and it will happen in 2023.”
She challenged citizens to make it their responsibility to participate in the ongoing national census.
Madam Trudeau, who is presenting visiting Liberia, has a role to effectively communicate US foreign policy priorities and the importance of diplomacy to American audiences, as well as engage foreign publics to enhance their understanding of and support for the values and policies of the United States..
She has held discussions with key stakeholders, including members of the Liberian media and civil society to better understand the status of media freedom, civil society, and government accountability in the post-conflict nation.