FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

2 April 2014

Liberia: 'Unexplained Deposits' - a Misrepresentation - Liberia On U.S. Banks' Shutdown

Monrovia — Liberia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has described as a misrepresentation suggestions that a recent decision by a banking institution in the US to shutdown the bank accounts of Liberia's mission in America may have been tied to violations of flaunting US banking regulations. FrontPageAfrica recently came in possession of a letter sent to a Liberia mission in the US from the Sterling National Bank requesting that Liberia's mission in the US shuts down its account with the bank.

The letter signed by the bank's first Vice President Mr. Michael-James Caldwell reads:

"This letter is to notify you of our decision to bring our banking relationship to a close by February 24, 2014. Please make arrangements to open your account with another institution. Prior to that date, you may, of course, provide us with written instructions on what to do with the account balance. If, by that date, you do not provide us with written instructions on the disposition of the account balance, we will mail you, at the address shown in our records, a bank check for any balance in your account. After we close your account, we do not have to pay any checks drawn on that account and we may return unpaid any check presented for payment."

On Tuesday, the MoFA responding to a FrontPageAfrica inquiry explained that the decision to shut down the account by Sterling was strictly due to the bank's merger with Provident Bank and not because of any suspicious banking activity. The Ministry's statement, reads:

"With reference to your question raised concerning" unexplained huge deposits", be informed that this characterization is a misrepresentation of the existing reality as the embassy operates two accounts, one being for all revenues generated from transactions involving passports (that is monies paid by Liberians who are acquiring passports in the United States at the passport issuance centers in Washington DC and New York). The other account has to do with consular and visas fees and salaries, and operational funds. Therefore, besides the normal routine flows to these accounts, no "unexplained huge deposits" have been remitted to or from these accounts."

It may be recalled that the US State Department had frozen the bank account a few years ago of the DC embassy for "unexplained huge deposits." Sources have suggested that Liberian diplomatic outposts had been under US Treasury and Internal Revenue Service radar for flaunting US banking regulations and IRS tax laws. As a result, some have suggested that Missions have been moving from bank to bank: Chase Manhattan Bank, Washington National Bank, JP Morgan and the latest, Sterling National Bank of New York on Friday, March 21, 2014, a sourced told FrontPageAfrica.

The source told FPA that Liberian embassy officials from both DC and New York were on Friday, March 21, 2014 seen at Sterling to close out their account, and withdrew money in cashiers' checks. The closure of the account has arisen fears among diplomats at Liberia's mission in the U.S. with some wondering how the decision would affect their salaries, rent for the office, phone, gas and heat bills and other related expenses. Employees are paid every three month period: January-February-March payment have reportedly been made already with the next scheduled payment set for April-May-June, a source told FPA.

Allaying fears of those serving in Liberia's mission in the US, the MoFA explained that it is aware of the situation. "In relations to concerns raised regarding the banking situation affecting Liberian diplomatic missions in the US, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to inform FrontPage Africa that it is aware of the situation obtaining in the United States with the missions in Washington DC and Permanent Mission at the United Nations; however the Ministry also wants to make it clear that such situation is not unique to Liberia but rather affects eighty 80 other diplomatic missions operating in the United States."

The statement continued: "Sterling National Bank, like most commercial US banks in the US, decided to have the accounts of Diplomatic Missions including those of Liberia's DC and New York Missions closed as indicated in a communication dated January 24, 2014 (received by the Liberian Mission on Jan 28, 2014) notifying the Missions of the Bank's decision to bring its relations to a close by February 24, 2014, urging missions to make arrangements to open accounts with another institution. We were informed by our mission in Washington DC that Provident Bank had a merger with Sterling Bank and Provident informed Sterling they didn't want foreign governments accounts and therefore the embassy accounts along with eighty 80 other missions were closed."

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sterling Bank further requested the Missions to provide written instructions on what to do with the accounts balances or a check for any balance would be mailed to the Missions.

"Due to the short notice, Sterling Bank however, granted a time extension request from Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh which was meant to grant the scope to search for another bank. A similar request for extension by the New York Mission beyond the March 24, 2014 was, however turned down by the Sterling Bank. Thus the accounts were closed officially on March 24, 2014."

The ministry says efforts are being made to remedy the situation. "The DC Mission has been searching the Washington DC area and other states for the possibility of establishing another account but with minimum progress. Let it also be noted that other banks have been contacted to render banking services to the Liberian missions; as at yet, no firm commitment has been given by the banks contacted but the Ministry is hopeful that a solution is in the offing."

The MoFA statement said the Ministry is working with the US State Department, the Liberian Missions in DC and New York, US Embassy near Monrovia, as well as the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Liberia to resolve the problem in the shortest possible time.

"In direct response to your concern over salaries, rent and personal bills of both the Embassy and local staff as well as payments for the Liberian passports, the Ministry is working with government stakeholders including the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Liberia to find an acceptable interim solution to deal with these challenges until the banking challenge is permanently resolved."

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