WASHINGTON: On Wednesday, December 9, 2020, the American government, through the Department of Treasury, while celebrating International Anti-Corruption Day, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) dropped what is now considered as the biggest bombshell in Liberia’s body politics as well the legal profession.
Though the US anti-corruption fight is not only limited to Liberia as it targets corrupt actors and their networks across several countries in Africa and Asia. According to US Treasury Department press release, issued on Wednesday, the actions are taken pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and targets perpetrators of corruption and serious human rights abuse.
“On International Anti-Corruption Day, Treasury remains fully committed to imposing costs on those who facilitate corruption at the expense of the people,” said Deputy Secretary Justin G. Muzinich.
The release further indicated that “To raise public awareness for anti-corruption initiatives, International Anti-Corruption Day has been observed annually on December 9 since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) on October 31, 2003.
There are currently 187 States parties to the UNCAC. In addition to sending a message against corrupt behavior, Treasury uses its tools to increase transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. With these designations, Treasury encourages all governments to implement anti-money laundering reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities.”
In Liberia, the US Treasury Department named Cllr. Harry Varney Gboto-Nambi Sherman (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 a 2010 bribery scheme, and he had an undisclosed conflict of interest with the judge who ultimately returned a not guilty verdict in July 2019. Sherman has routinely paid judges to decide cases in his favor, and he has allegedly facilitated payments to Liberian politicians to support impeachment of a judge who has ruled against him.”
The American government added that “In the 2010 scheme that led to this trial, Sherman was hired by a British mining company in an effort to obtain one of Liberia’s last remaining mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession. Sherman advised the company that, in order to obtain the contract, they first had to get Liberia’s procurement and concessions law changed by bribing senior officials. In 2016, Sherman was indicted by the Liberian government, along with several other government officials, for their involvement in the USD 950,000 bribery scheme. In 2019, the presiding judge acquitted all individuals accused of being involved in the bribery scheme. Sherman’s acts of bribery demonstrate a larger pattern of behavior to exercise influence over the Liberian judiciary and the Ministry of Justice.
Sherman is designated for being a foreign person who is a current or former government official responsible for or complicit in, or 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,” the Treasury Department released concluded.
Revisiting of the ‘Big Boys’ Criminal Files”
Despite former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s huge trust and confidence reposed in her confidants, many of them have chosen the path of duping the former Liberian leader and the Liberian people of needed resources.
A classic investigation into the famous Global Witness bribery scandal report on the Sable Mining operations in Liberia has unearthed a dossier of evidence covering a criminal syndicate in the mining sector. These trusted officials have been too close to Madam President for over decades during their years as opposition politicians.
Reports had it that past and present government officials accused in the Sable Mining bribery scandal were involved in similar crimes at different levels while performing official duties from 2009-2011 in the Unity Party-led regime.
For instance, Liberia’s prominent and best connected corporate lawyer, Cllr. H. Varney Sherman, who later chaired the ruling Unity Party from the opposition Liberia Unification Party (LUP) was implicated in the disgraceful diplomatic scandal involving Danish filmmaker/journalist, Mads Johan Brugger Cortzens, valued US$150,000, to secure the journalist’s diplomatic credentials including a Consul General post in the Central African Republic or CAR. Cllr. Sherman reportedly manipulated the system at the Foreign Ministry to award journalist Cortzens the Consul General title. Also, the former House Speaker, J. Alex Tyler, was heavily linked to the NOCAL oil consultation bribery scandal in which a major player in the deal, Cllr. Michael Allison, was later found dead on a beach in Sinkor.
As for former Lands, Mines and Energy Minister, Dr. Eugene Shannon, he was involved in the scrapping and sale of the Mount Coffee Hydro Turbines after the government and its international partners did an assessment on the hydro facilities and observed that the turbines were intact following the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003.
In one of their criminal deals, former Lands, Mines and Energy Minister, Shannon and his deputy, Ernest C.B. Jones (referred to as ECB Jones) overturned the Bong Mines iron ore concession in favor of China Union, instead of Vedanta Mining. International mineral experts reported that Dr. Shannon and ECB Jones took over US$50,000 bribes to influence members of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the Bong Mines project with a promise of additional money upon the final award of the Bong Mines bid to China Union. The contact between China Union and Shannon/Jones duo was initiated by one Ken, a business operative from Asia.
In August 2009, Mr. Morris Saytumah, one of the accused in the Sable Mining scandal, was similarly linked to a US$300,000 bribery deal involving former LPRC boss, Harry Greaves (late) in a secret voice recording to influence the Independent Technical Committee probing Zakhem International Construction Limited contract, valued US$25m for the rehabilitation of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC) facilities.
Furthermore, these same officials who have been implicated in various criminal activities are again booked in the Sable Mining bribery scandal reported by the UK-based Global Witness and further investigation conducted by the defunct Special Presidential Task Force has uncovered their alleged involvement in multiple crimes.
Case History: According to the defunct Special Presidential Task Force then headed by Grand Kru County Representative, Cllr. Jonathan Fonati Koffa, on the Sable Mining saga, the case emanated from a report entitled: “The Deceivers” published by the UK-based Global Witness on May 11, 2016. The Report which covered several countries in Africa including Liberia, alleged that Sable Mining Africa, Ltd. acquired a stake in Delta Mining which was operating in Liberia, and devised a scheme and system to bribe officials of the Government of Liberia to change the procurement laws in order for Sable Mining to obtain prized mineral concession far below market prices, which prime target is the Wologisi mountain range in Lofa County, Liberia. The Taskforce said at the time through its lawyer in Liberia, Cllr. H. Varney Sherman, Sable Mining was to pay bribes and make other questionable payments to key officials of the Liberian government. Sable Mining officials themselves also made some of these payments directly, the Taskforce added.
The total amount of US$950,000 was used as bribes and questionable payment from all sources operating on behalf of Sable Mining.
Big Boy-1 File: As stated above, Dr. Eugene Shannon has been involved in series of clandestine activities while serving as Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy during the first term of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. He was one of the officials who always bragged that he left his “fat and lucrative job” as a means of sacrifice for his country; there are no benefits for the services he provided as Minister. In contrast, during the General Auditing Commission (GAC) HIPIC audit 2009-2010, Minister Shannon could not account for US$2.8million accrued from mining licenses and rights. Also, he was part and parcel of the controversial Elenilto deal that was sold out for nearly US$200 million another firm from India.
However, when the Taskforce on June 7, 2016 invited Dr. Eugene Shannon to appear for interview on June 9, 2016 at the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission to address the issue of US$5,000.00 that he allegedly received from Sable Mining Company through Cllr. Varney Sherman and Sherman & Sherman Law firm, Dr. Shannon, in a written statement, vehemently lied that by August 2, 2011 he was no longer the Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, and as such “he has no idea of such transactions.”
He also stated that he does not know Sable Mining Company and there was no reason to lobby with Minister Saytumah (now senator for Bomi County) to render any favor in the interest of Sable Mining Company. Shannon said he does not know and had had no dealings whatsoever in his lifetime with Sable Mining Company. Ironically, records from the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) show that Dr. Eugene Shannon and his deputy (Ernest Jones) both former ministers at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy hosted executives of Sable Mining on several occasions.
Unmasking Big Boy-1 and 2: Despite former Minister Shannon’s denial that he never saw or interacted with Sable Mining officials, a very important closed person to the executives of Sable Mining at the time who saw the various transactions of money changing hands was Mr. Klaus Piprek. Mr. Piprek revealed how a Sable Mining delegation from South Africa came to Liberia with huge sums of money and was hosted by Dr. Shannon and his deputy Ernest C.B. Jones. Piprek, former Country Director for Sable Mining Africa was initially apprehensive to explain but has now agreed to testify for the prosecution. He disclosed in his four (4) hour interview with the Task Force investigators on September 27, 2016, in Johannesburg, South Africa, that in 2008 or 2009, he was contacted by one Heine Van Niekerk-whom he knew, and asked to join him in a company called Delta Mining-DMC to set up a business in Liberia for the purpose of mining at the Western Cluster. Narrating further, Piprek said Heine promised that he (Piprek) was to be an “employee with no shareholding of directorship” right.
The defunct Task Force findings quotes Mr. Piprek as saying, the bid for the Western Cluster failed, which resulted into attempts by DMC to consult with its lawyers in South Africa to begin legal process in Liberia. During this period, Piprek added, Van Niekerk approached him about the acquisition of DMC by Sable Mining Africa, Ltd and he was subsequently introduced to Andrew Groves in Johannesburg. He said, he was later asked to join an exploratory trip to Liberia which occurred on April 14, 2010 in a private chartered plane which landed at the Roberts International Airport.
Explaining further, Piprek told the Liberian team of investigators that during their visit to Liberia, he observed that Mr. Andrew Groves entered the country with vanity case, and at one point while coming to Liberia in the plane, Mr. Groves opened the case, and remarked to him, “this is what half a million dollars look like.”
The former Sable Mining Africa Director further stated that upon their arrival at the airport, they were picked up by someone he did not know and at some point went for supper where it turned out to be Eugene Shannon’s house; and was introduced to Eugene Shannon and another person named ECB Jones and their wives. Following the supper, Piprek indicated that van Neikerk asked him to wait outside but as he left the room, the vanity case was handed over to Dr. Shannon.
Importantly, he informed the Liberian investigators that after they (foreign delegation) departed Shannon’s residence and returned to Kendeja hotel (RLJ Resort), he (Piprek) never saw the vanity case again. He returned to South Africa for medical reasons and came back to Liberia sometime in June and met Van Niekerk; copying emails including an attachment to Varney Sherman. He (Piprek ) as a company representative had no idea that the objective of the company was to apply for the Wologisi exploration concession; which would be granted to the company as part of the settlement agreement between the DMC and the government of Liberia, as soon as the PPCC Act is amended.
Shockingly too, in June or July 2010, he came across a place owned by former House Speaker, Alex Tyler, but on August 6, 2010, he (Piprek) received a call from former Speaker Tyler for a dinner at the Boulevard Café; during which he informed Tyler that they were not taking up the property. During that meeting, Tyler advised that he (Tyler) knew the importance of the PPPC Act changes to Sable Mining and that he could help Sable get changes quickly for an amount of US$250,000.00.
Having heard the information about Tyler’s intention to double-cross him, Sherman appeared very irritated that Piprek was involved with a discussion with Tyler hurriedly communicated with van Niekerk in an email not to entertain Tyler’s request. Piprek further narrated that Van Niekerk sent him an email exchange between himself (Van Nierkek) and Sherman indicating clearly that the company should not honor Tyler’s request and that Sherman will take care of the discussion with Tyler.
The Investigators: The defunct Special Presidential Task Force report released on December 23, 2016 disclosed that on April 14, 2010, Sable Mining Chief, Andrew Groves, Klaus Piprek and Heine van Niekerk boarded a private jet with flight #S000 and flew to Liberia. On board that plane, the investigation findings revealed that Mr. Groves brought a vanity case in which he displayed US$500,000 in flight.
The report also confirmed that US$500,000 brought into Liberia by Sable Mining’s officials was paid to Dr. Eugene Shannon, former Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy and his deputy, Ernest C.B. Jones, at a private dinner hosted by Dr. Shannon at his house. The Liberian investigators then discovered that the US$500,000 payment to Dr. Shannon and Jones was accounted for in the ledger of the Liberia Iron Ore Investment Ltd, a Liberian subsidiary of Sable Mining. The entry showed US$500,000 cash from Groves and payment for Big Boy-1, US$250,000 and Big Boy-2 US$250,000, suggesting the money Groves gave to Dr. Shannon at his house. Dr. Shannon and Jones were necessary and critical to conspire to circumvent any natural resources laws and regulations as they as officials heading the ministry were responsible to influence these laws.
Similarly, Dr. Shannon was involved in the same dubious deal when the Supreme Court of Liberia ruled against him in early 2014. The Court said the former Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, Dr. Eugene Shannon, “grossly erred” by extending the Bentley International Trading Incorporation concession agreement. The Chief Justice of Liberia Francis S. Korkpor Sr., who read the opinion, pointed out that former Minister Shannon lacked the legal authority to have extended the Bentley agreement to 15 years without any legal validity.
The Supreme Court is the highest arbiter of Justice in the country.
At the same time, the Special Presidential Taskforce on the Sable Mining bribery scandal has executed the arrest of former Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, Dr. Eugene Shannon, Bomi County Senator Morris Saytumah, also former Minister of State for Finance, Economic & Legal Affairs; while Professor Willie Belleh, Chairman, Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) is said to be on the run. But at Liberian government has acquitted all the big boys allegedly associated with the bribery scandal, thus leaving the public and international investigators pondering over this latest development of the American imposing sanction on corruption actors.