FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

4 February 2014

Liberia President Freezes LTA Account Over U.S.$1 Million Lease Deal

Photo: Liberia Government
President Sirleaf (file photo).

Monrovia — Less than 48 hours after a FrontPageAfrica investigative report uncovered yet another wasteful spending on the part of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) in the tone of US $1.1 Million dollars, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has with immediate effect ordered a freeze on the accounts of the LTA, and suspended the US$1 million lease agreement between LTA and a Chinese company, Qinjian International, for a building it intends to secure as an office.

The President through an Executive Mansion release Tuesday afternoon also ordered a full investigation into all standing contracts between the Ministry of Public Works and construction companies in the country.

The President Sirleaf has directed all current and former officials of the Ministry of Public Works to cooperate fully with the investigation.

The President took the decision following a meeting last evening with Public Works officials. The Liberian leader took the decision to ensure that Government gets the full value for money spent.

Public Works Weeks Survives, Deputy Fired

Meanwhile, President Sirleaf has accepted, with immediate effect, the resignation of Deputy Public Works Minister for Technical Services, Mr. Victor Smith., and has directed him to remain in country and cooperate fully with the investigation.

Smith was involved in a heated exchange with Minister Antoinette Weeks last week resulting into what eyewitnesses say a rain of insults, prompting Smith to leave the ministry.

The fight between the pair comes in the wake of mounting tension pitting the minister at odds with her principal deputies, prompting allegations that Weeks has been micromanaging the ministry with very little input from senior staff toward agenda items/issues

Some of Weeks' peers say she is oppressive and domination of meetings; intolerant, does not allow for competing views and opinions and lacks a clear plan-of-action for the Ministry. Some employees point to Weeks' poor working relationship as a key reason for the problems which hit boiling point. "Their argument was intense with each cursing each the other ma and pa (mother and father invectives) and in the end, Deputy Minister Smith told the Minister to (bleep) her job and drove out of the ministry's compound.

Minister Antoinette Weeks has also been taken to task over her callous use language; profusely abusive, insulting and accusative toward others and engaging in physical interaction with some personnel while being condescending to and disdainful of the senior staff.

LTA Saga Boils Over

FrontPageAfrica reported Monday that LTA Chair Angelique Weeks, had 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.

Ironically, 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.

The LTA, whose lease with the Methodist Church, the landlord for one of its offices in Sinkor expired last Sunday, had already moved into the controversial new building despite objections from the Ministry of Justice and the Public Procurement Concessions Commission.

The LTA chair had 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.

Multiple sources confirmed to FPA that 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.

FrontPageAfrica has made frantic efforts to get some kind of response from the LTA boss but only managed to get a partial response in which she failed to explain why the LTA did not use such enormous amount to build a building of their own or whether spending one million plus dollars on a lease property a good investment for the LTA and value for money for Liberia and its international partners.

Weeks did however confirmed that the initial term of the Lease Agreement between LTA and CNQC for LTA's New Office Building is for three (3) years, at $385,000 per year, payable yearly at the commencement of each Lease year. She however said: "While this amount might seem significant, it is not, taking into consideration, the Cost Benefit Analysis conducted in connection with selecting the subject property, which indicates overall annual cost savings for the LTA through the consolidation of all offices and staff."

The LTA boss clarified that the LTA offices were housed in *three* rental properties, not two. "In addition, the World Bank financed WARCIP Liberia Project, for which the LTA is Project Implementing Agency, occupies a fourth rental property. Staff from all four buildings can be accommodated in the LTA's New Office Building," she noted.

Pressed as to how the LTA intended to fund the project, Weeks said the LTA's New Office Building is funded by LTA's 2013-2014 Budget, which allocated adequate funding in contemplation of consolidating all of our offices in one property. The process was executed transparently through a public tender process pursuant to the PPC Act; several other buildings were considered prior to the final decision of the LTA's Procurement Committee.

Weeks also clarified the issue of a Spectrum Monitoring Equipment which she informed the Senate the LTA did not have money to purchase raising questions as to how it could then afford to lease such a building for such an exhorbitant amount. Said Weeks: "The issue of the Spectrum Monitoring Equipment was the specific mention made during the Senate hearing as a set back to the LTA's ability to monitor and manage the nation's scarce spectrum resource. The LTA has compelling information that suggests that a significant number of radio stations in Liberia are operating with frequencies that have not been assigned by the LTA. The ability to monitor spectrum will enable us to curb the practice and collect much needed revenue through the licensing process. The equipment costs over US$2 Million dollars and will be paid for over a number of years, including a down payment in the current budget year. The LTA has completed the required PPCC public tender process to select a vendor willing to pre-finance the procurement. We are now awaiting feedback from the Ministry of Finance in order to move the process forward."

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President Sirleaf (file photo).

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