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Top GoL officials named in bribery scandal

Several senior government officials here past and present both in the Executive and Legislature have been named in a bribery scandal amounting to nearly one million United States Dollars by a UK based mining company.

The officials named are House Speaker Alex Tyler, former NIC boss Richard Tolbert, Sen. Morris Saytumah, Willie Belleh then Chairman of the Public Procurement Concession Commission and National Security Chief Fombah Sirleaf.thers are former Sen. Cletus Wotorson, former Sen. Sumo Kupee, now LPRC Managing Director, E.C.B Jones, former Deputy Minister of Lands and Mines with two unnamed individuals who took US250,000 each.

The officials were said to have been bribed by the company and Cllr. Varney Sherman, now a Senator of Grand Capemount County in various amounts, according to the UK based environmental NGO-Global Witness with the sole aimed of trying to manipulate the mining laws of Liberia in favor of the company securing the Wologizi Mining Concession.

Global Witness in a release issued Wednesday said it uncovered over US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments by UK mining firm Sable Mining and Cllr. Varney Sherman, then its lawyer. The findings which are contained in a reportt, The Deceivers, shows how in 2010 Sable hired Varney Sherman, Liberia’s best-connected lawyer and current Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, in an effort to secure one of Liberia’s last large mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession in northern Liberia.

The report quoted an inside source familiar with the discussion that Cllr. Sherman told Sable that in order to obtain the contract the company must first get Liberia’s concessions law changed by bribing senior officials. This account, according to Global Witness is backed up by leaked emails and company documents it said it had seen.

According to the documents, Sherman then began distributing Sable’s money to some of Liberia’s most important government officials. “Sable and Sherman paid bribes in order to change Liberia’s law and get their hands on one of its most prized assets, the Wologizi concession,” said Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner with Global Witness. “The government must act fast and investigate Sable, Sherman, and the officials they paid.”

The table below details the bribes listed in an account statement by Sable and Varney Sherman’s law firm, Sherman & Sherman: Official Position in 2010 Explanation in source documents Bribe (US$) Alex Tyler Representative, Speaker of the House “Consulting fees” 75,000 Richard Tolbert Chairman, National Investment Committee “Consulting fees” 50,000 Morris Saytumah Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs [Now: Senator] “Consulting fees” 50,000 Willie Belleh Chairman, Public Procurement and Concessions Commission “Consulting fees” 10,000 Total 185,000 

Global Witness said it uncovered other payments by Sable to officials and unidentified people referred to as “Bigboy 01” and “Bigboy 02.” While it is not clear why the company made these payments, some of those involved are key to approving contracts. 

Fombah Sirleaf, son of President Johnson Sirleaf and head of Liberia’s National Security Agency also benefitted from Sable’s largesse. In 2011, Sirleaf went on a US$7,598 hunting trip to South Africa paid for by Sable, spending over US$1,000 in a gun shop alone. There is no evidence that Sirleaf provided Sable with any favours, although he was clearly a useful person to know.

The table below details other questionable payments made by Sable: Person Position at time of payment Explanation in source documents Payment (US$) Fombah Sirleaf Director, National Security Agency South Africa trip expenses, phone bills 9,168 Sumo Kupee Senator ‘Consulting fees’ 5,000 Cletus Wotorson Senator, Speaker of the Senate ‘Consulting fees’ 5,000 Richard Tolbert Chairman, National Investment Committee [Also: President, Invincible Eleven football club] Donation to Invincible Eleven 20,000 Ernest C.B. Jones Dept. Minister, Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy ‘Accommodation’ for Jones and Chris Onanuga, a company fixer  4,500 ‘Bigboy 01’ Unknown None 250,000 ‘Bigboy 02’ Unknown None 250,000 Total 543,668 At the time that these payments were made, Sable Mining was headed by British businessmen Phil Edmonds and Andrew Groves, Global Witness said. 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. Details of Edmonds’ wealth are rare, but in 2012 he was reportedly worth some US$14 million. 

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. (4) According to Sable the deal will greatly reduce the costs of its Guinean operations. The Liberian government states that it is negotiating with Sable, but has not yet given the company rights to the railroad. (5)  “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 Gant. “After recent prosecutions of officials for bribery in the oil and forest sectors, it is time for the government to tackle bribery in the country’s biggest sector: mining.”

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 labelled ‘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, labelled as ‘Political contribution – UP Secretary General resignation.’ Fahnbulleh quit the next day.

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 licence 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.

When contacted by this writer to comment on the Global Witness findings Wednesday Information Minister Eugene Nagbe forward to this paper a letter written to the environmental watchdog as a response. See full letter below. Dear Mr.Balint-Kurti: Kindly accept our appreciation for your email in which you informed the Government of Liberia that Global Witness will shortly be putting out a report on businessmen Phil Edmonds and Andrew Groves, including a chapter on Liberia. You also alerted us that the report will include evidence to support allegations that Sable Mining and its affiliates paid out bribes, through Cllr. Varney Sherman, “to a wide range of government officials” with the aim to have Sable “get hold of the concession for Wologizi”.

The Government of Liberia is concerned about these grave allegations of bribery and therefore wishes to encourage Global Witness to make available all information on this matter so that it can take appropriate action to investigate and prosecute if a violation of the laws of Liberia is determined. 

However, we wish to clarify that the government of Liberia has never initiated, commissioned, nor participated in any process for granting a concession of the Wologizi Mountains to Sable.
In 2013, the Presidents of Liberia and Guinea signed a joint communiqué which mandated relevant ministries and agencies of the two countries to begin negotiations that would culminate into an agreement to grant third party access of the Tokadeh-Buchanan rail for the conveyance of iron ore mined in Guinea to the Port of Buchanan in Liberia.
Parties to these negotiations included the Governments of Liberia and Guinea, West Africa Exploration, an affiliate of Sable, and Arcelor-Mittal which currently holds a Mineral Development Agreement with Liberia that grants it first party use of rail.
Though not yet consummated, the process of negotiating said agreement is being carried out with full transparency in keeping with the laws of Liberia and international best practice.
Once again, please be assured that the Government of Liberia remains committed to working with Global Witness and other partners in ensuring openness, transparency and good governance. Be further assured that the Administration of President has zero tolerance for any act of corruption and will therefore spare no efforts in getting to the bottom of the issue and bring to justice anyone found to be culpable.


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