FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

3 February 2014

Liberia: LTA's Wasted Million - Liberia Telecom Regulators Subleases Us$1.1 Million Building

Photo: Liberia Government
President Sirleaf (file photo).

Monrovia — An investigation by FrontPageAfrica has unraveled yet another serious waste of Liberian Government resources at the Liberia Telecommunications Authority.

"I am about to go to sleep after a long and hectic day, so I'm not currently disposed to provide a detailed response. However, I can tell you that some of your information is wrong, so the premise of many of your questions is flawed" - Angelique Weeks, Chairperson, Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA)

Coming on the eve of a radical effort by the government to go after various private firms for taxes, documents in possession of FrontPageAfrica suggest that Angelique Weeks, the chair of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), recently entered into an advanced negotiations with a Chinese company, Qingfian International (Lib) Group Development Co. Ltd. (CNQC) to rent its apartment building to house the LTA. The building is located on the Congotown back road near the Baptist Church.

FrontPageAfrica has also gathered that prior to the signing of the lease agreement, the National Investment Commission turned down an asking price of US$450, 000 per annum for the same building, causing many to wonder why the LTA settle for such a ridiculous offer.

US$385,000 Per Annum for Lease

FrontPageAfrica has also gathered that that LTA chair has agreed to pay US$385,000.00 (Three Hundred Eighty Five Thousand United States Dollars) per year, with a three-year upfront payment to a Chinese Landlord totaling US$1,155,000.00 (ONE MILLION, ONE HUNDRED FIFTY FIVE THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS). The four-story building contains thirty-one rooms and six bathrooms situated on two lots of land.

According to a source within the LTA, the lease agreement was sent to the Ministry of Justice in keeping with the Procurement Law. However, it appears that the Ministry of Justice was reluctant to sign off on the deal despite the insistence of Weeks. One source said the ministry was reluctant committing the government of Liberia to a lease agreement that made the government a tenant of a Chinese Company in Congo Town. More importantly, concerns have been expressed about the LTA's unilateral decision to lease a building for more than a million dollars when the same money could build more than one permanent structure for at least two or three government agencies.

Ironically, Weeks, who was recently re-nominated by President Sirleaf to a second term as chair, told a Senate committee during her confirmation hearing that the LTA was unable to effectively carry out its functions because of funds to procure certain equipment. Weeks' testimony before the Senate coupled with the LTA's ambitious lease agreement is raising questions in view of the LTA's intention of renting an office space for over one million United States dollars.

The LTA currently leases three buildings across town, while Ms. Weeks maintains two offices for herself. The Minister of Finance Amara Konneh recently accused the LTA of not meeting its commitments to support the national budget, which has contributed to budgetary shortfalls which could affect important infrastructure and social services programs.

This recent action on the part of the LTA Chair is only one of many bad decisions affecting the LTA under the leadership of Weeks, who apparently seems to enjoy the president's confidence despite many indiscretions.

FrontPageAfrica has learned that the LTA has not, as of Fiscal Year 2012/2013 and Fiscal Year 2013/2014, submitted its procurement planning for approval in keeping with Section 40 of the PPCA. The regulations state that prior to approval of Procurement Plans must be obtained from the Public Procurement Concessions Commission before any contracts can be awarded for Fiscal Year 2013/2014. The LTA's non-compliance, FrontPageAfrica has learned was deemed a violation of the PPCA as Procurement Planning is the beginning from which transparency and accountability of GoL funds can be ascertained.

FrontPageAfrica has also learned that the PPCC, in pursuit of safeguarding government funding and ensuring value for money in keeping with donor support requirements, requested that the LTA provide clarification assessments with regards to, among other things, the total number of staff of the LTA, the cost of purchasing the CNQC Qingian International(Lib) Group Development Co. Ltd building, Prospect of renovating government-owned property for its use; and the possibility of purchasing a land and constructing its own property compared to spending more than a million dollar for a lease property. The LTA reportedly did not provide the documentations at the end of the December 6, 2014 deadline. The contract was reportedly signed in December.

LTA Fails Value for Money Test

Liberia's international partners and donors have in recent months stressed the importance of value for money. The British government's Department for International Development (DFID), for example, has made it quite clear that it will follow the British government's policy of value for money by supporting strategic management and greater transparency in ensuring tightened contract management and controls in the UK's support to infrastructure and work closely with the government and the donor community to monitor and support the implementation of the government's anti-corruption strategy. Thus, some political analysts say, lease agreement such as the one signed by the LTA is bound to raise red flag, internationally.

LTA, Weeks Dodges Questions

FrontPageAfrica made several efforts to get a response from Weeks and the LTA to no avail.

On Jan 29, 2014 at 1:55 AM the following message was emailed to Chairlady Weeks seeking clarity on the matter:

Hon. Weeks,

Hope all is well. We recently came in possession of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) and Qingjian International (Lib) Group Development Co. Ltd. (CNQC) to sublease a four-story office building containing thirty-one rooms and six bathrooms, situated on two lots of land, lying and situated on the Congo Town Back Road, approximately 100 yards from the First Baptist Church, Congo Town.

The price tag is said to be in the tone of US$385, 000.00 (three hundred eighty five thousand United States Dollars per year, and to pay three years up front. The total LTA would pay the Chinese landlord would come to US$1, 155,000.00 (one million, one hundred, fifty five thousand united states dollars).

We plan on running a story and are seeking clarification on the following:

A. Would this building replace the current two rental properties the LTA is currently using?

B. How does the LTA intend to fund this project? Who will pay?

C. During your recent confirmation hearing before the Senate you insinuated that the LTA was unable to effectively carry out its functions because of lack of funds to procure certain equipment. Don't you think the purchase of such an elaborate building would raise a red flag, especially in the wake of the recent declaration from the Minister of Finance that the LTA has not met its commitments to support the national budget?

D. Couldn't the LTA use such funds, if they have it to actually build a building of their own?

E. Do you think spending one million plus dollars on a lease property is a good investment for the LTA and value for money for Liberia and its international partners?

F. Finally, did the LTA seek approval from the Public Procurement Concessions Commission before advancing on the lease property?

Looking forward to hearing from you before going to press. We are also open to conduct an interview with you regarding this at a time of your convenience.

Sincerely

Rodney D. Sieh

Publisher, FrontPageAfrica

www.frontpageafricaonline.com

Ms. Weeks responded the same day with the following message:

Mr. Sieh:

I am about to go to sleep after a long and hectic day, so I'm not currently disposed to provide a detailed response. However, I can tell you that some of your information is wrong, so the premise of many of your questions is flawed. If you'd like to arrange an interview with me, please contact Ms. Jarsea Burphy, LTA's Director of Public Affairs, who I'm copying for her awareness.

Angelique Weeks, Chairperson

Liberia Telecommunications Authority

FrontPageAfrica, as requested by Weeks immediately sent an email to Burphy:

Ms. Burphy: Would be grateful if you could arrange an interview with the chair regarding the topic below. Please let me know what time would be best.

Regards,

Rodney

The email to Burphy was followed by a follow-up text message, but nothing substantial was gathered from the LTA over why more than a million dollars was spent on a subleased property of a foreign company.

The LTA's controversial lease agreement comes in the Aftermath of a recent decision by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to dismiss the entire board of the Liberia Telecommunications Company(LIBTELCO), including the Managing Director Ben Wolo, based on the conclusion of an agreement which failed to meet legal requirement.

LIBTELCO Déjà vu?

The board was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into its alleged failure to stick to the provisions of the Public Procurement Act in concluding a contract with a European company, Ketter Telecom (K3).

It is unclear whether Sirleaf will take action similar to the one she took when the LIBTELCO board signed an MOU without with a foreign company in violation of the Public Procurement Concession Commission.

Weeks' predecessor Albert Bropleh was arrested in July 2011, by officers of the Liberia National Police and escorted by tight security to a local prison in Tubmanburg, Bomi County Liberia for jumping bail. Bropleh was tried in August 2010 at the 12th judicial Circuit in Tubmanburg, Bomi County on three count charges, after being indicted by the Government of Liberia for the crimes of economic sabotage, theft of property, and criminal facilitation in the amount of US$ 70,000.00.

As this story went to press, Senator Fredrick Cherue, Vice Chair of the Committee on Postal Affairs and Telecommunications in the upper house told FrontPageAfrica that he is in communicating with the board of the LTA to seek further clarification on the matter.

No Award Without Compliance

A FrontPageAfrica reporter who visited to the building in question last Friday noticed some movement on the premises. A worker confirmed that the LTA management were already in the process of moving into the building, suggesting that that the LTA went ahead and signed the MOU even though it was advised by the PPCC not to do so, a clear violation of Section 31. 1 of the Amendment and Restatement of the Public Procurement and Concessions Act states that "No Procuring Entity shall enter into a procurement contract above the Thresholds establish by Regulations promulgated by the Commission unless a minimum of fourteen (14) days have lapsed since the notification of intent to award a contract was delivered to the Commission."

In the case of the LTA, committing government's taxpayers to a lease agreement surpassing one million when the PPCC clearly requested additional information and urging the LTA to look at the prospect of renovating a government-owned property for its use; or the possibility of purchasing land and constructing its own property. The PPCC Act also states that no award may be made until the Procuring Entity takes steps to bring the proposed procurement into compliance with the Act."

A Sector in Turmoil

A look at recent events putting the telecommunications sector under scrutiny in Liberia

The LIBTELCo suspension

The LTA's controversial lease agreement comes in the Aftermath of a recent decision by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to dismiss the entire board of the Liberia Telecommunications Company(LIBTELCO), including the Managing Director Ben Wolo, based on the conclusion of an agreement which failed to meet legal requirements.

The Albert Bropleh Saga

Weeks' predecessor Albert Bropleh was arrested in July 2011, by officers of the Liberia National Police and escorted by tight security to a local prison in Tubmanburg, Bomi County Liberia for jumping bail. Bropleh was tried in August 2010 at the 12th judicial Circuit in Tubmanburg, Bomi County on three count charges, after being indicted by the Government of Liberia for the crimes of economic sabotage, theft of property, and criminal facilitation in the amount of US$ 70,000.00.

The Novafone Mystery

Novafone, which replaced Comium as a cellular carrier, pressed criminal charges against one of its own employees, Hussein Dakroub, a Lebanese national who is the company's ISP Technical Supervisor for illegally operating a device that was stealing from Novafone, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority(LTA), the government of Liberia as well as rival carriers, Lonestarcell/MTN and Cellcom.

Investigators have also informed FrontPageAfrica that the company's CEO Chady Salim is being considered a Person of Interest in the case and that more people may be involved in the scam.

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