6 February 2014

Liberia: Selective Justice? Problematic LTA Woes Come Full Circle

Photo: Liberia Government
President Sirleaf (file photo).

Monrovia — An audit for the fiscal years ending 2006/07 and 2007/08 of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority by the General Auditing Commission unveiled a number of reportable issues of fraud involving former Chairman Albert N. Bropleh.

Two years later, Bropleh was arrested and taken to court, images of Bropleh's embarrassing position remains on the worldwide web. Today, the case involving the former head of the LTA remains the most visible action to date taken against a former official accused of corruption since the inception of the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government.

Critics and international observers have been concerned over the lack of prosecution for officials accused of corruption with many former officials cited by the GAC, special presidential commissions, LACC and PPCC still roam freely around the city.

This was compounded by the President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's own assertion during her annual message last week that she is looking forward to working with what she described as a "media-shy" GAC, a GAC that is unlikely to make audit reports available for public consumption and dissecting, although Section 37 of the Public Financial Management Law (2009) clearly states that all completed audit reports are to be published within one month of completion.

Bropleh Era Comes Full Circle

This week, events at the LTA came full circle when the president announced the cancellation of a US$1.1 million dollar lease agreement undertaken by the current LTA chair Angelique Weeks and the board of the Authority.

Mr. Albert N. Bropleh, Former LTA Chairperson

The action came less than 48 hours after FrontPageAfrica reported that the LTA had entered into an advanced negotiation 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. The same building and price was rejected by another government agency, the National Investment Commission (NIC). The Chinese company demanded an asking price of US$450,000 per annum.

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-storey 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.

While Bropleh and his team were suspended and subsequently dismissed, the current LTA board has not been touched, only the controversial contract terminated and the LTA accounted frozen. Many are also confused over why the President recently took a decision to suspend the entire board of the Liberia Telecommunications Corporation (LIBTELCO) but has so far failed to do the same for the LTA board whose actions in ignoring the recommendations of both the Public Procurement Concessions Commission and the Ministry of Justice led the authority into its current predicament.

Sirleaf suspended the entire LIBTELCO board, including the Corporation's Managing Director, pending the conclusion of an investigation, under the guidance of the Ministry of Justice, into their failure to adhere to the provisions of the Public Procurement Act in concluding a contract with a European company, Ketter Telecom (K3).

Ironically, the GAC recommended in 2008 that the LTA Chairman and its Board of Commissioners should ensure that Management strictly adheres to the dictates of the PPC Act, 2005. Doug Saunders, writing in Canada's The Globe and Mail last November warned that the persistent corruption may be an effect of Liberia's other big problem: "An approach to economic development, promoted by Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, that often seems to consist of offering the country's natural resources to the highest international bidder with little or no regard for transparency, responsibility or effects on people and the environment."

Bropleh-Era Account Also Frozen

International criticism of the Sirleaf government was bolstered in the aftermath of the revoking of 17 timber permits, signed under highly questionable circumstances that allowed the foreign license-holders to claim 40 per cent of the country's forests without regard for social and environmental protection laws. According to a draft audit report by Moore Stephens, only two of the 68 resource contracts worth $8-billion signed by Liberia since 2009 have been in compliance with the country's laws.

This is why many are raising eyebrows over why one agency, the LTA which has not as of last Fiscal Year 2012/2013 and Fiscal Year 2013/2014, submitted its procurement plan for approval in keeping with Section 40 of the PPCA. The PPCA clearly states that prior to approval of procurement plans must be obtained from the PPCC before any contracts can be awarded for Fiscal Year 2013/2014. The LTA's defiance has been deemed a gross contravention of the PPCA as procurement planning is the beginning from which transparency and accountability of government funds can be ascertained.

Similarly, the Auditor General's 2008 report also took the Bropleh era to task over unrealistic budget provisions without executive approval. "Though LTA Act Part 111, 9 (5) requires the Commission to prepare an annual budget for the operations of the LTA, to be submitted for approval by the Executive Branch of Government, there was no such approval of the budget for the financial years, 1 March 2006 to 31 December, 2007 and 1 January, 2008 to 31 December, 2008. The Chairman of the LTA confirmed the omission, but asserted that the budgets were approved by the President. However, he indicated that the President's approval was not in writing. Instead, it was given to him verbally."

On February 27, 2009, the President wrote Chairman Bropleh to indicate that she (the President) had learned that there was excessive spending at LTA in a budget not approved by her. She therefore ordered the LTA account frozen, suspended Chairman Bropleh, and subsequently the President made all Commissioners to resign.

Ex-Commissioner Jappah Took Issue with Prez

Commissioners at the time thought their suspension and ultimate forced resignation was unfair as they deemed as collective punishment. On May 18, 2009, former Commissioner Ruth Jappah-Samukai wrote the President, "it is with deep regrets and great reluctance that I honor your request to resign as a Commissioner of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA).

Madam Angeline Weeks, LTA Chairperson

I am quite cognizant of the fact that none of the conditions set out in Section 10 of the Liberian Telecommunications Act is applicable to force my removal from the Commission and cause me to relinquish the remainder of my four-year term. The request to the commissioners undermines the Act and sets a bad precedence. Nonetheless, I offer this resignation voluntarily, recognizing the full weight and power of the Liberian Presidency and the consequences of resisting a request of the President."

Writing further, former Commissioner Jappah-Samukai, "it is the political protection of the Chairman (Albert Bropleh) which has caused you the most embarrassment, as he has sought to abuse the favor with which you have graced him... Almost from the onset of constituting the Commission, it became mired in old-style Liberian politics as the Chairman began maneuvering to redefine his role outside of its scope and authority.

The unfettered access of the Chairman to you and your office and the corresponding lack of access of other commissioners thereto, both encouraged and enabled the Chairman to usurp both the powers and functions of the other commissioners, leaving them as little more than mere employees of the LTA. We sounded these concerns but they fell on deaf ears. He quickly moved from the presiding officer of the Commission to its Chief Executive Officer as he usurped the powers of the commissioners and its executive staff.

"As a consequence, rumors of self-dealing, misappropriation of funds, conflict of interest and unilateralism began to swirl around the office of the Chairman and infest the entire Commission. I could have gone along with the whole charade, collecting my salary from the public and letting the Commission sink into the abyss of corruption and incompetence. Rather, I chose to stand up to defend the Act creating the Authority and bring the Chairman to book every time he exceeded the scope of his authority."

"May I respectfully remind you, Madam President, that because the Executive lacked the political will to reign in the excesses of the Chairman, it took the Legislature to briefly imprison the Chairman and you to subsequently, but reluctantly, suspend him for the very acts and behavior for which I stood against him. Ironically, it was during his suspension that the Commission accomplished its most significant work; concluding the agreements with the GSM companies and obtaining more than US$13 million dollars for the public treasury. It is the political protection of the Chairman which has caused you the most embarrassment, as he has sought to abuse the favor with which you have graced him."

The GAC reported, "The lack of evidence of approval of the LTA Budget by the President implied that all disbursements undertaken within the period under review were unauthorized. Additionally, the absence of an approved budget for the period denied basis for assessing the performance of Management for the period under review. The Chairman of the LTA should be held accountable for breaching the provisions of the LTA Act Part 111, 9 (5)."

Failure on the part of the LTA to comply with the PPCC is raising eyebrows over the agency's decision last year to purchase thousands of dollars' worth of vehicles for commissioners without going through the procurement process. The GAC audit of 2008 also took former chairman Bropleh to task for and pressed him to provide documentation such as invoices, receipts for vehicles he single-handedly procured from the U.S.

The audit recommended that Bropleh be made to restitute the additional cost of US$1,921.25 made on the procurement of the three vehicles without material justification. As a result of the many accusations levied against Bropleh, the Government of Liberia, through the Minister of Justice, commenced prosecution for fraud and misuse of public funds he had committed at the LTA. The AG reported at the time also observed severe control deficiencies leading to payroll irregularities.

"Chairman Bropleh, during his tenure of office, awarded large increases in salaries and allowances paid to LTA Board, staff and himself. For instance, Chairman Bropleh's gross salary plus an allowance for the month of September 2007 was US$5, 000.00 and in October 2007, his gross monthly salary and allowance considerably swelled to US$16,333.00, which implies that the Chairman enjoyed averaged 237% over and above that earned in September 2007.

It was unclear what considerations led to the changes and the salaries and allowance levels the Chairman decided on. Furthermore, there was no approval of the President for such an increment in the salaries and allowances paid to Chairman Bropleh, a requirement under LTA's enabling enactment."

Like the current LTA board which has been non-cooperative with the PPCC, the Bropleh-era LTA, according to the GAC was uncooperative, prompting the intervention of the President in December 2008 and March 2009 for the audit to start. LTA Forewarned on Bad Deal, Source Says

Auditor General Morlu wrote, "I reviewed the Authority's procurement documents provided for audit review. It was revealed that the procurement of goods and services undertaken by the Authority, amounting to US$388,636.54 was done without regards to the PPC Act of 2005 as these goods were paid for without contract documents and threshold requirements to support the purchases."

The Auditor recommended that the LTA uses formal and valid contractual agreements for procurement of assets as required under the PPC Act. Seven years later, the practice appears the same with the LTA continuing to function outside the scope of the GAC.

FrontPageAfrica has learned the current LTA leadership were forewarned not to enter into the agreement with the Chinese company for the controversial lease agreement but did so anyway.

The PPCC reportedly urged the LTA in an effort to safeguard government funding, ensuring value for money, to provide the total number of staff of the LTA, the cost of purchasing the CNQC Qinjian International Group Development Co. Ltd's building and the prospect of renovating government-owned property for its use or possibility of purchasing land and constructing its own property.

Further, like the Bropleh era, the current LTA Management is said to be non-compliant when it comes to the provisions of the existing regulatory framework (i.e. Executive Ordinance No. 8) on retirement and payment of travel allowances which the AG recommended seven years ago, could cost the Authority substantially and unnecessarily, if the lapses are not addressed.

"I thus recommended, among others, that LTA Management should strictly comply with the Guidelines and Procedures on Per Diem and Allowances specified in the extant Executive Ordinance No. 8 issued by the Government.

The Chairman should be made to produce approval of his foreign trips and failing this; all unapproved trips should be borne by the Chairman and should not stand as a charge to the Commission," the AG recommended.

Greaves Calls for Probe

Today, the practice is still the same at the LTA with the chair and commissioners making multiple trips year round. But it is the controversial lease agreement which has drawn new scrutiny over the expenditures at the LTA. Mr. Harry A. Greaves, former Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company has openly called for an investigation. MORE READING:

Harry Greaves: Something 'Fishy' About US$1M LTA Lease

"I know that some people in this Administration feel that we are now in injury time and therefore they are entitled to chop. But this is ridiculous, outrageous, and President Sirleaf should not allow it to stand, if she is serious about her much-touted campaign against corruption. I will go one step further.

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, the Ministry of Justice and the Public Procurement and Contracts Commission should launch an immediate investigation into this sordid arrangement and take corrective, punitive action. Enough is enough!" Greaves said in a letter to FrontPageAfrica this week."

The former LPRC boss said, alarmed that there is something decidedly fishy about the LTA lease. "How does the cost per square foot of LTA's new lease compare with the cost per square foot of their old leases?" Under the old arrangement, there were 3 leased properties.

If you add up one year's lease payments of the 3 properties and divide that total by the combined square footage of the usable space contained in those properties, you will arrive at an average cost per square foot. Compare that figure with the cost per square foot of the new building. If that latter number is significantly higher, that is the giveaway. The fish is really rotten."

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