The latest mind-blowing revelation by Global Witness dubbed “Deceiver 1” is just a tip of the iceberg.
The UK based transparency watchdog organization disclosed that over US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments were given by mining firm Sable Mining and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.
According to the report, Cllr. Sherman who is also Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, told Sable that in order to obtain the contract the company must first try to shortchange Liberia’s concessions law by bribing senior officials. Global Witness indicated that the revelation is backed by leaked emails and company documents. The aim of the bribery scheme was to favor Sable in the bid to award one of Liberia’s last large mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession in northern Liberia.
According to the documents, Sherman then began distributing Sable’s money to some of Liberia’s most important government officials including House Speaker Alex Tyler who received US$75,000; former Deputy Minister Morris Saytumah, now Senator of Bomi County, US$50,000; Fumba Sirleaf, son of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and National Security Agency Director, US$9,168; former National Investment Commission Chairman, Richard Tolbert, US$50,000 and another US$20,000 was donated to Invincible Eleven- a football club headed by Tolbert. Others who benefited from the dish-out include former Lofa Senator, now Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC), Sumo Kupee, US$5,000; former Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Lands and Mines, Ernest C. B. Jones, US$4,500 and “Bigboy1 and Bigboy2 took US$250,000 each.
The ruling Unity Party also got US$200,000 from Sable mining’s largesse as “political contribution” resulting to the Liberian lawyer buying his way to the party’s chairmanship.
Global Witness said there were hiccups. For instance, on 7 August, the head of Sable’s Liberian operation, Heine van Niekerk, emailed Sherman with news of a worrying phone call in which it was revealed that Speaker Tyler was unhappy with his $75,000 payment. The Speaker had phoned to say that getting the Act through the House of Representative would cost “about US$250,000”, van Niekerk told the lawyer.
Sherman was alarmed that Sable might over-bribe.
“Heine, don’t do that please!” he replied that evening. “You will be milked like a cow.”
At the time that these payments were made, Sable Mining was headed by British businessmen Phil Edmonds and Andrew Groves. The Deceivers shows how, in addition to their misadventures in Liberia, the pair have siphoned millions from investors and hired a security agent who spied on and intimidated their business rivals.
Despite the company’s corrupt tactics, Sable has not been awarded the Wologizi contract. However, in January 2015, Sable announced that it had received lucrative rights to transport iron ore from its Guinean concession to the Liberian coast on a railroad used by ArcelorMittal.
“The Liberian government has pledged to ‘spare no efforts’ investigating Sable’s activities in Liberia and has said it will ‘bring to justice anyone found to be culpable,” said Jonathan Gant.
“Sherman, who has represented investors such as Chevron and Firestone, has also benefitted from his dealings with Sable. A $200,000 payout from Sable’s funds labeled ‘political contribution – UP convention’ is dated 22 April 2010, less than three weeks before a Unity Party conference where Sherman was elected party Chairman.
At the same convention, Unity Party members elected Henry Fahnbulleh as Secretary General. Sherman opposed this and publicly demanded Fahnbulleh’s resignation. Documents seen by Global Witness show how, on 24 June, Sable paid out US$25,000, labeled as ‘Political contribution – UP Secretary General resignation.’ Fahnbulleh quit the next day,” the report added.
Global Witness is recommending that 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. For its part, if Sable broke the law Edmonds and Groves should be prosecuted and Sable’s transportation license should be revoked.
“Edmonds, Groves, Sherman, and the Liberian officials they paid should not be able to profit from corrupt, back-room deals,” said Gant. “Only through these actions will Liberia demonstrate that it is serious in its fight against corruption.”
When asked to comment on Global Witness’s findings, Sable said it conducts its business ‘in a responsible and ethical manner.’ It said it had conducted a review into the payments in 2011, but that no evidence implicating the company’s Board of Directors was found and financial controls were tightened as a result. The payments documented by Global Witness were made by Delta Mining, in which Sable had only a minority interest, the company said. But the payments came from Sable’s account and not Delta’s, a spreadsheet detailing bribe payments shows.
Global Witness attempted to contact those listed as having received payments or gifts. Tolbert, Belleh, Kupee and Wotorson all denied taking bribes from Sable. Tolbert, however, did acknowledge accepting payments to the football team. Saytumah, Tyler, ECB Jones and Fombah Sirleaf did not respond to letters hand-delivered to their offices. Sherman declined to comment on grounds of confidentiality, although he acknowledged that his firm made unspecified payments from its Sable client account.
Due to the severity of the exposure, President Johnson-Sirleaf has, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice, appointed a Taskforce to investigate the just published Global Witness on Liberia that linked several individuals and prosecute as the evidence may require. The Liberian leader announced the decision today following a review of the report, which was submitted to the Government of Liberia by Global Witness alleging corruption and bribery on the part of several former and current officials of government.
The task force is to be headed by Minister of State Without Portfolio, Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, who is named a Special Prosecutor along with a team of lawyers from the Ministry of Justice including the Solicitor General, Cllr. Betty Lamin Blamo. (The Task Force is also charged with investigating and resolving all allegations contained in current and past GAC reports).
The Liberian leader has also urged all individuals named in the report to submit to and cooperate fully with the investigation.
President Sirleaf has further written British Prime Minister David Cameron requesting full cooperation and assistance from the British Government, as a UK company is involved.
Meanwhile, the President Sirleaf has said “the report brings home the fact that the real purveyors of corruption are those predatory investors who rely on the weaknesses of some officials and the vulnerability of poor countries to carry out dubious business transactions while being harbored by rich countries”.
She called on the leaders of “rich and powerful countries to use this matter involving Sable Mining to take strong punitive actions against criminal- minded individuals, who export corruption to African countries, obtain illegal wealth and store their ill-gotten wealth in these western countries while economies of poor countries suffer as a result of these illicit deals”.
President Sirleaf also pointed out that the foreign businessmen and corporations that are alleged to have paid bribes must also be investigated and prosecuted by their respective governments.
Meanwhile, the Government of Liberia has formally requested Global Witness to make available all pieces of evidence cited in the report to assist the Task Force 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”.
Minister Nagbe said: “Transparency and anti-corruption watchdog organizations must transcend from merely making allegations in reports to adducing evidence to concerned authorities for appropriate legal action to be taken”.
It remains to be seen what steps the Government of Liberia will take when and if Global Witness provides further proofs of stinking corruption in high places.