9 January 2013

Liberia: Atlantic Resources, Affiliates in 'Criminal' Forest Business - PUP Probe Committee Recommends Closure

The Special Independent Investigation Body (SIIB) setup by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to investigate the issuance of Private Use Permits (PUPs) has recommended that Atlantic Resources Limited (ARL) be required to pay all tax arrears on Forest Management Contract (FMC) and be permanently barred from engaging in commercial forestry activities in Liberia.

The body, headed by Mr. James D. Jallah, further recommended that ARL and affiliated companies including - Forest Venture, Nature Orient Timber Corporation, Southeast Resources be permanently barred from engaging in commercial forestry activities for violation of National Forestry Reform Law (NFRL) 20.6(a)(i) and 20.6(a)(ii) and for orchestrating fraudulent activities in Liberia's forest sector.

PUP is a right given to communities to operate private forest in the country. However, this right has been grossly violated by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) , private logging companies operating in disguise as well as community members. Until this information was uncovered by the United Nations Penal of Expects and Global Witness reports on Liberia's forest, majority of the PUPs issued by the FDA landed in the hands of logging companies operating in the country.

The SIIB said it took particular interest in PUPs operated by Atlantic Resources because several of its PUPs were acquired on the same day - October 6, 2011, signed by Deputy Minister, Dr. Sizi Z. Subah on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, Florence A. Chenoweth. Atlantic Resources is one of several companies that operated community-held PUPs across counties in Liberia. The deed verification letters written to the FDA by the Ministry of Lands, Mines and energy (MLME) were signed by Mr. Maxwell C. F. Gwee as proxy for George Miller, Assistant Minister of Lands, Survey, and Cartography.

The illegal actions of Atlantic Resources and its associated companies are being further investigated by the Ministry of Justice, the SIIB said.

The investigative body has further recommended that Amb. John Gbesie, Messrs. Augustus Abram and Ben Kofie be barred from engaging in commercial forestry activities in Liberia and prosecuted by the Ministry of Justice for fraud, violation of Section 20.6(a) of the NFRL. At the same time, the SIIB also recommended that EJ and J Corporation and its Chief Executive Officer Eliza Kronyann be prevented from engaging in commercial forest activities unless an independent panel makes a determination that the company has the financial and technical capacity to operate a commercial forestry license independently.

The body also wants 'Sarah Miller prevented from representation, management, or service as an agent of any PUP and/or community forestry except on land proven to be personally owned by her as verified and validated by the Land Commission. That the Ministry of Justice prosecutes all individuals who submitted PUP applications with forged land deeds.

In a related development, the SIIB has also recommended the suspension of the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth for a period of one month for failure to provide proper oversight over FDA and failing to conduct due diligence in the issuance of PUPs.

The body also wants the Board of Directors of the FDA be appropriately reprimanded for breach of their fiduciary duty, the duty of care owed to the FDA and failing to conduct due diligence and to provide effective oversight of FDA operations and in the issuance of PUPs.

They also recommended that the suspended Managing Director, Moses Wogbeh should be dismissed from the FDA and government service for gross misconduct, abuse of power, economic sabotage, and insubordination to the FDA Board of Directors and prosecuted appropriately.

The Investigation Body also recommended to the President the immediate dismissal of Messrs. John Kantor, FDA Technical Manager; Towon Nyenty, FDA GIS Coordinator; and Jangar Kamara, from FDA and government service for orchestrating the falsification of government records and receiving illegal payments from PUP operators. The group recommended that the above named individuals should be further investigated by the Ministry of Justice and the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission (LACC) and if convicted be made to restitute payments received illegally.

Furthermore, the SIIB also wants the Board of Directors of FDA to establish and institute appropriate guidelines for reviewing, approving and attesting to the actions of FDA and establish and institute mechanisms for receiving and investigating claims made against FDA management.

"Dr. Sizi Subah, Deputy Minister of Agriculture should also be appropriately reprimanded for failing to conduct due diligence in attesting to 17 PUPs dated October 6, 2011 and Mr. Maxwell C. F. Gwee, Director of Cartography Services at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy be dismissed from the ministry and barred from holding any position involving land transactions or resource licensing." The Report indicated.

Meanwhile, the report further indicated that Mr. David Blaye, County Surveyor for Grand Bassa County should be dismissed and Mr. Maxwell C. F. Gwee be investigated by the Ministry of Justice for fraudulent conveyance of land and gross misconduct.

Moreover, the report also calls for the "dismissal of Cllr. Benedict Sagbeh, FDA Legal Counsel from the entity for conniving with FDA Management and various individuals in the fraudulent issuance of PUPs; and a complaint of his unethical behaviors and ethical failures and moral turpitude be reported to the Grievance and Ethics Committee of the Liberia National Bar Association for disciplinary action.

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