Liberia’s Bribery Whodunnit: Political Undertones Could Have Ripple Effects on 2017

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Monrovia – The ruling party chair at the center of is going down as one of the most damning scandal in Liberia’s history appeared undisturbed when asked by a journalist at a news conference last Friday, whether the mention of his name and key figures of the Unity Party in the scandal could hurt the party at the polls in the 2017 Presidential and legislative elections.

“If it is found that they broke the law, Liberian government officials should be removed from office and prosecuted, while Sherman should be disbarred and also face criminal charges” – Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner on Liberia for Global Witness

“I don’t think so,” Varney Sherman shook his head with a straight face.

Across Liberia however, the trend the aftershock has swayed has been enormous.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has set up a special task force to look into the saga, while asking the London-based Watchdog Group, Global Witness, which released the report to assist the government by making available all pieces of evidence cited in the report to assist the Taskforce in the investigation.

In a letter to Global Witness, Information Minister Eugene Nagbe said “the Government of Liberia is concerned about these grave allegations of bribery and corruption and therefore formally requests Global Witness to make available all pieces of evidence on this matter so that it can take appropriate actions to investigate and prosecute if a violation of the laws of Liberia is determined”.

GW Willing to Aid Probe

GW has since welcomed the actions taken by President Sirleaf, including establishing an investigative task force and contacting the UK authorities to encourage their cooperation and have expressed willingness to assist the Liberian government get to the bottom of the scandal.

“We are happy to assist the government with its investigation as requested and are compiling evidence we can send to help you with your inquiries,” Jonathan Gant, the organization’s lead campaigner said in a communication to the Liberian government obtained by FrontPageAfrica.

FrontPageAfrica has been informed that GW is in the process of compiling additional evidence to submit to the task force investigating the saga.

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission which is also assisting the Task force has reportedly also sought Global Witness’s help in an investigation it says, it has launched, FrontPageAfrica has learned.

Gant told the VOA’s Daybreak Africa Monday that prior to the release of the report, it did write the the Liberian government and plans to cooperate fully with the government.

GW says it is hopeful that the Liberian government will act on the report and take swift action. “In recent years, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made efforts to hold accountable those who break Liberia’s natural resource laws, including prosecuting those involved in illegal logging and oil deals. We are hopeful that this investigation into the mining scandal will be similarly thorough, demonstrating Liberia’s commitment to fighting corruption.”

Mr. Gant says his organization has confidence the Liberian government will thoroughly investigate Sable, Sherman and the other Liberian officials mentioned in the report. “If it is found that they broke the law, Liberian government officials should be removed from office and prosecuted, while Sherman should be disbarred and also face criminal charges.”

Minister of Information Eugene Nagbe agrees, saying that the allegations in the report reflect badly on the image of Liberia, and the government wants to investigate and prosecute those who would be found culpable.

GW last week released a damning report which it alleges that over $950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments were made to top Liberian officials by the United Kingdom-based Sable Mining company and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.

The report says the officials who allegedly received bribes include Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives Alex Tyler:  $75,000 for “consulting fees” and Richard Tolbert, chairman of the National Investment Committee:  $50,000 for “consulting fees”.

Morris Saytumah, Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs, now a senator, also allegedly received $50,000 for “consulting fees”, and Willie Belleh, Chairman of Public Procurement and Concessions Commission allegedly received $10,000 for “consulting fees”.

Two of the biggest payments went to persons identified in the report as “Bigboy 01” and “Bigboy 02”, each receiving $250,000 with no explanation of why the payments were made.

According to the report entitled – The Deceivers – Sable wanted to get the concession rights to Liberia’s Wologizi iron ore.

Sherman, who is also chairman of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s ruling Unity Party, allegedly told Sable Mining that in order to get the contract, the company must first offer bribes to senior officials to change Liberia’s concession laws.

Sherman told newspaper editors last week that the report was a “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Sherman also said he and his law firm are prohibited by law and the Liberian constitution from divulging to anyone what they did for Sable Mining when they served as the company’s lawyers in Liberia in 2010.

“Our code of professional ethics and the Liberian Constitution prohibits us from making any such disclosures and we will subscribe to those tenets even if we were to be taken to the gallows to be hanged,” Sherman said.

But Gant says GW stands by the report. “We have proof that payments were made; we have proof that the intention of the payments was to first get the law changed in order to second get the iron ore deal. And that was the advice given to the company by Sherman, their lawyer, that they should get the law changed in order to get the contract,” he said.

Political Undercurrents – Tyler Willing, Sherman Not

Gant said the report is a collection of evidence based upon leaked emails both from the company and from the lawyer himself which included the attachments listing the bribes and payments.

Gant said Global Witness knows the payments were made, but it cannot say who the individuals were. “We didn’t put the names of those two individuals, just the names that were on the payment list that we had which is “Bigboy 01, Bigboy 02 because we don’t right now have the evidence to be able to state who those people actually are. But we know the payments were made to one and two,” he said. He said Global Witness is going through its evidence to see if the names are publishable.

The report also alleges that President Sirleaf’s son, Fombah Sirleaf, who is director of Liberia’s National Security Agency also benefited with “a $7,598 hunting trip to South Africa paid for by Sable.”

Others mentioned in the report include Senator Sumo Kupee and Cletus Wotorson, both allegedly receiving $5,000 each for “consulting fees”. It said Tolbert, Belleh, Kupee, and Wotorson all denied taking bribes from Sable.

While much of the attention has been shifting on the mystery surrounding the GW report, particularly the half a million payment listed under Bigboy 1 and Bigboy 2, the saga appears to be taking a rather unique turn that could impact some of those named in relations to the 2017 presidential elections.

Cllr. Sherman, the party chair has thrown his support to Vice President Joseph Boakai while Tyler bolted the ruling party and is now an influential player and founder of the Liberian People Democratic Party which has ironically in recent weeks taken jabs at the ruling party and Sherman.

The strains and bad blood between the pair could be in underlying factor in the ongoing investigation as both has gone their separate ways, politically.

Following his exit from the ruling party, Tyler who cited neglect and lack of consensus as his reason for leaving, was slammed by Sherman who termed his departure an act of betrayal.

In the past 48 hours both men have taken opposite path in responding to the controversy.

Tyler Submits; Sherman Balks

Sherman has stated twice: first at a news conference with newspaper editors last Friday and on Monday on state radio ELBC’s “The Bumper Show where he reiterated that he will not submit to the Presidential Task Force set up by the President.

“If Fonati Koffa were to come to ask me a question, I will ask him, ‘are you a lawyer’? If he says yes, I will ask him, ‘How come you are asking me questions? You should know better.’ You can’t be a Liberian lawyer and not know [about confidentiality].

Sherman insists that it is the President’s prerogative to appoint a Task Force but it is also his right not to not to appear.

In contrast, the Speaker of the House of Representative, in a statement Monday expressed his willingness to submit to a probe but not the one set up by the President, stating that “That the team lacks the authority to investigate the President and other elected officials; and that a Special prosecutor who is a presidential appointee and functioning under the supervision of the President cannot be trusted to carry out an impartial investigation of these allegations.”

While expressing his willingness to cooperate with the process, Speaker Tyler proposed that an independent panel outside of government, with representation of the Press Union of Liberia, Civil Society, Inter-Religious Council, Liberia National Bar Association and others be constituted, to launch an immediate inquest in to the alleged bribery scandal, to ascertain the veracity of the claims in the Global Witness Report.

Cllr. Koffa, appearing on the 50-50 Morning Show on 107.9, sought to allay concerns of critics of the Task force and insisting that he has a responsibility to the public and as such it will probe the matter and bring to justice those indicted in the report based on sufficient evidence with the help of Global Witness and international investigators. Cllr. Koffa said the investigation can be concluded within thirty days based on cooperation from both parties and those involved.

Cllr Koffa added that Global Witness, who is the complainant evidence, is critical to the speedily probing of the allegation and said the taskforce is working twenty-four seven to be able to give as quickly as possible some answers to the Liberian people, saying there are government officials at the highest level who are mentioned in the global Witness report.

“There are people who integrity is online and even they should want to have as speedy process as possible, you talk about reputable lawyers and legislators. If they are clear and have done anything wrong they deserve the right to be exonerated,” he noted.

Cllr. Koffa said the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has invested all powers in the taskforce to prosecute if anyone found liable in the investigation. He said the taskforce is on a robust path of investigating and taskforce is gathering evidences, saying they will not form an opinion on the evidences until the taskforce sit at a meeting and invite people involve the saga.

Interestingly, Cllr. Koffa was President Sirleaf’s preferred choice for Justice Minister but reportedly faced opposition from Sherman, who heads the Senate Judiciary committee. Now with the tables turned, some political observers say concerns of repercussions could be behind the rejection of the Task Force by those involved.

Lawyer-Client Protection vs. Illegal Acts

Political observers say the stance taken by Sherman and Tyler relating to the Task Force could complicate the investigation especially regarding information in the report and denials from both Tyler and Sherman regarding payments from the Sable account.

“In the same report, a “leaked email” insinuates that I received $75,000 USD to help change the law in favor of Sable Mining. This is untrue; I, at no time received any money from anybody, neither did I hold any discussions with anybody regarding Sable Mining,” Tyler said Monday.

The ruling party is also reportedly divided over how to handle the delicate issue of Sherman who took some fire Monday from Augustine Ngafuan, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, now flirting with a presidential bid of his own.

Appearing on state radio, The Bumper Show Monday, former Minister Ngafuan wondered why elders in the party were not particularly concerned about Sherman’s role in the Global Witness report, citing such activities as one of the reasons why he left the party.

The political undertones against the backdrop of Sherman’s own contention and suggestions insinuations Monday that President Sirleaf abandoned promises made to the party and him in particular emanating from the Liberian Action Party, Liberia Unification Party and the Unity Party that the vice president would have been chosen from one of the merger parties and that he Sherman would have been the vice president during the 2011 presidential elections.

For the immediate future, political observers are keen to see how the dark shadows being cast on the Task Force by both Sherman and Tyler will impact the investigation.

Global Witness insists that its reports and evidence suggest that payments were made although it falls short on the biggest revelation, the US$500,000 paid to big boy 1 and big boy 2.

But Gant suggests that while there is no evidence on the mystery pair, the government investigation or Task Force can raid offices and get people to be subpoenaed. But with Sherman claiming the Lawyer-Client protection angle, Gant wonders whether that privilege includes illegal behavior.

 But legal or illegal, the political undertones are likely to linger with possible implications for those in the mix for the 2017 elections play.

 Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

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