The newly elected political leader of Liberia’s one time biggest opposition party, United People’s Party (UPP) McDonald Wento has been linked to evading taxes here that has accrued up to US$11.7 million, according to the environmental watchdog group, Global Witness.
A 2015 Global Witness Report on Liberia revealed that as of January 2015, two other companies that Mr. Wento partially owns – Geblo Logging and International Consultants Capital, were awarded logging contracts in 2009 by the Government of Liberia, which accumulated unpaid tax bill of US$ 11.7 million. The amount, which represents taxes owed over five years, places Geblo and International Consultants Capital in the category of Liberia’s worst tax dodgers.
Wento, who owns Liberian-registered New Millennium, which holds a five percent stake in oil Block 16, is linked to logging companies that have accrued some of the highest tax arrears in Liberia’s forestry sector. New Millennium lists him as a board member, incorporator, and sole agent.
“If the aim of the Liberian government was to raise cash when leasing Block 16, it makes little sense to include a company linked to Wento,” said Global Witness Chief Jonathan Gant.” Gant added, “The US$ 22 million Liberia received from its oil deal must now be balanced against the US$ 11.7 million owed by logging companies that Wento is linked to. The government will need to ensure that, unlike Geblo and International Consultants Capital, New Millennium makes good on its financial obligations.”
The 2015 report further detailed that in December last year, Global Witness received a copy of a US$ 31,000 check paid from a Liberian government bank account to Liberian Senator Sando Johnson, dated 18 December – the same day the legislature passed Block 16.
But Global Witness says it has been unable to verify why Sen. Johnson was paid the said money or by whom. Liberian legislators are entitled to compensation when they remain in session through their break, as was the case in 2014. Given historical claims of legislators receiving bribes to approve oil contracts, this report by Global Witness is yet to be independently authenticated.
It may be recalled the government put four offshore oil blocks up for bidding at the height of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak, which by December 2014 had killed at least 3,290 people. On 18 December the first, and so far only, of these contracts was finalized.
Block 16 was awarded to US-based Liberty Petroleum, Nigerian-based Pillar Oil, and Liberian-based New Millennium Oil and Gas, who together reportedly paid US$ 22 million in signature bonuses and other payments.
The report says US-registered Liberty holds a 90 percent stake in the contract. Yet the company has only seven employees and a 2014 declared turnover of just US$ 3 million. In contrast, assuming that Liberty’s contract complies with the Liberian government’s new model contract (the Block 16 contract is not yet public), Liberty and its junior partners must invest US$ 53 million in the next seven years in oil exploration, the report maintains.
Liberty is part-owned, through a series of intermediary companies and trusts, by US Congressman Trent Franks, a Republican representing Arizona’s 8th District. The report says that Wento’s history inspires doubt in his intention to manage Block 16 responsibly. As regards Nigerian Pillar Oil; Global Witness does not suggest that it is in tax arrears or has an inadequate financial position to service the oil exploration contract.
By E. J. Nathaniel Daygbor