The Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions Committee of the Senate investigating a bribery scandal against the Senator Aloysius Etuk-led Senate Committee on Establishment went beyond its brief yesterday when it threatened to deal with LEADERSHIP if it failed to disclose the sources of its story that detailed the scandal.
LEADERSHIP had exclusively reported how one Dr. Sani Shuaibu Teidi claimed to have bribed members of the Senate Committee on Establishment with N3 billion in dollars to stall the prosecution of the accused persons allegedly involved in pension scandal. Although members of the committee had denied the story, the Senate through its resolution had mandated the committee to investigate the matter and report back to the Senate.
Senior editorial staff members of LEADERSHIP and their lawyers had been summoned three times by the committee over the matter and they cooperated with the senators. The committee yesterday in a letter earlier signed by its clerk, Mr. Jonathan T. Torueme, invited LEADERSHIP management to appear before it. Managing editor Mr. Iyobosa Uwugiaren was there.
First, the committee wanted the managing editor to disclose the identity of the newspaper's sources of the story, in spite of the fact that the organisation had earlier sent a tape recorder to the committee where Dr. Teidi said he bribed the senators with N3 billion in dollars. Mr. Uwugiaren told the committee that disclosing the identity of the sources would amount to destroying the journalism profession and that the code of journalism ethics does not allow any responsive and responsible journalist to do that.
A member of the committee and lawyer, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri (Bayelsa, disagreed with Mr. Uwugiaren and said that the Freedom of Information Act allowed journalists to disclose their sources of information given to them in confidence.
Maintaining his position, the managing editor disagreed with the senator and insisted that there is no section in the Act that compels journalists to disclose their sources of information given to them in confidence. He told the senator to familiarise himself with the FOI Act. At that point, Senator Lokpobiri went violent in his conduct, shouting on top of his voice and threatened that the Senate would deal with LEADERSHIP if it failed to disclose its sources.
He reminded LEADERSHIP that the Senate had the power to force any institution - whether private or public -- to appear before it and compel anybody to respond to its demands.
At that point, Mr. Uwugiaren told the committee that LEADERSHIP, as a responsible organization, had all long cooperated with the committee in its investigation and would continue to do that if the committee was actually interested in probing the bribery scandal. He however drew the attention of the committee to the fact that Dr. Teidi had already filed a suit against LEADERSHIP in an Abuja High Court for libel, saying the matter is now sub-judice and advised the committee to allow the competent court of law to determine the merit of the case. The papers filed in court by Dr. Teidi and the counter-claims by LEADERSHIP were presented to the committee.
However, as if the committee chairman, Senator Ayo Akinyelure, and Senator Lokpobiri were personally affected by the matter, they said the court proceeding would not stop the committee from doing its work and gave LEADERSHIP seven days to comply with its demands or face the music. Only LEADERSHIP was at the public hearing; Dr. Teidi was not present.
The public hearing however got messier when an aide to Senator Lokpobiri attacked Mr. Uwugiaren, to the embarrassment of some security agents present at the event.
The principal suspect in the scandal, Dr. Teidi, had said that the Senator Etuk-led committee failed to fulfil an earlier promise of helping to stall their prosecution after collecting the N3 billion contributory bribe. Another source close to Dr. Teidi had also said that the disaffection within the Senate committee was borne out of the discovery that, out of the N3 billion obtained as bribe from the six accused, Senator Etuk attempted to outsmart his colleagues by declaring only N500 million, a paltry one-sixth of the actual bribe he allegedly collected, and also participated in the sharing of the sum.
The source added that Dr. Teidi and other accomplices paid the Sen. Etuk-led committee the N3 billion bribe in dollars after Teidi was coerced into giving details of his assets/properties, with a promise to soften the severity of his offence, after which he was asked to give out 50 per cent to them.
An obviously angry Dr. Teidi "felt betrayed by the Senate committee leadership's greed and inability to properly handle our (the accused persons') matter before" it, our source had added, and he therefore resolved to make public all information on the botched agreement.
However, apparently intimidated by some of the affected senators, Dr. Teidi later made a U-turn: he denied the story, even though our source had him on tape.