12 May 2016

Liberia: 'Global Witness Uncovers Bribery in Liberia'

Photo: The New Dawn
House Speaker Alex Tyler is one of several officials named in the Global Witness' report.

The international watchdog, Global Witness says it has uncovered over US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments by UK mining firm Sable Mining and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.

But responding to Global Witness' findings, the government has pledged to investigate and hold those culpable to account.

The report, captioned "The Deceivers" (1), shows how in 2010 Sable hired Varney Sherman, Liberia's best-connected lawyer and current Chairman of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Unity Party, in an effort to secure one of Liberia's last large mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession in northern Liberia.

Sherman is reported to have told Sable that in order to obtain the contract, the company must first get Liberia's concessions law changed by bribing senior officials, according to a source familiar with the discussions. The group claimed that the account is backed up by leaked emails and company documents it has seen.

According to the documents, Sherman reportedly began distributing Sable's money to some of Liberia's most important government officials.

"Sable and Sherman paid bribes in order to change Liberia's law and get their hands on one of its most prized assets, the Wologizi concession," said Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner with Global Witness. "The government must act fast and investigate Sable, Sherman, and the officials they paid," he added.

According to release, GW listed the names of Liberian officials who allegedly received bribes by Sable and Varney Sherman's law firm, Sherman & Sherman in2010. Those listed include House Speaker Alex Tyler, who reportedly received US$75,000 for "Consultation fees".

Richard Tolbert, former Chairman, National Investment Committee (NIC) reportedly received US$50,000 for "consulting fees;" Morris Saytumah, former Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs (now Senator of Bomi County) allegedly received US$50,000 as "consultation fees" and Professor Willie Belleh, Chairman, Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) is alleged to have received US$ 10,000 as "consultation fees."

Global Witness said the total amount spent is US$185,000. The international watchdog also uncovered other payments by Sable to officials and unidentified people referred to as "Bigboy 01" and "Bigboy 02." While it is not clear why the company made these payments, some of those involved are key to approving contracts.

According to the documents, Fombah Sirleaf, son of President Johnson Sirleaf and head of Liberia's National Security Agency also benefitted from Sable's largesse. In 2011, Mr. Sirleaf went on a US$7,598 hunting trip to South Africa paid for by Sable, spending over US$1,000 in a gun shop alone. There is no evidence that Mr. Sirleaf provided Sable with any favours, although he was clearly a useful person to know.

The group said at the time that these payments were made, Sable Mining was headed by British businessmen Phil Edmonds and Andrew Groves. The Deceivers shows how, in addition to their misadventures in Liberia, the pair have siphoned millions from investors and hired a security agent who spied on and intimidated their business rivals. Details of Edmonds' wealth are rare, but in 2012 he was reportedly worth some US$14 million.

Despite the company's corrupt tactics, Sable has not been awarded the Wologizi contract. However, in January 2015, Sable announced that it had received lucrative rights to transport iron ore from its Guinean concession to the Liberian coast on a railroad used by ArcelorMittal. According to Sable, the deal will greatly reduce the costs of its Guinean operations. The Liberian government states that it is negotiating with Sable, but has not yet given the company rights to the railroad.

"The Liberian government has pledged to 'spare no efforts' investigating Sable's activities in Liberia and has said it will 'bring to justice anyone found to be culpable'." said Gant. "After recent prosecutions of officials for bribery in the oil and forest sectors, it is time for the government to tackle bribery in the country's biggest sector: mining."

Sherman, who has represented investors such as Chevron and Firestone, has also benefitted from his dealings with Sable. A $200,000 payout from Sable's funds labeled 'political contribution - UP convention' is dated 22 April 2010, less than three weeks before a Unity Party conference where Sherman was elected party Chairman.

At the same convention, Unity Party members elected Henry Fahnbulleh as Secretary General. Sherman opposed this and publicly demanded Fahnbulleh's resignation. Documents seen by Global Witness show how, on 24 June, Sable paid out US$25,000, labeled as 'Political contribution - UP Secretary General resignation.' Fahnbulleh resigned the next day.

If it is found that they broke the law, Liberian government officials should be removed from office and prosecuted, while Sherman should be disbarred and also face criminal charges. For its part, if Sable broke the law Edmonds and Groves should be prosecuted and Sable's transportation license should be revoked.

"Edmonds, Groves, Sherman, and the Liberian officials they paid should not be able to profit from corrupt, back-room deals," said Gant, adding "only through these actions will Liberia demonstrate that it is serious in its fight against corruption."

When asked to comment on Global Witness's findings, Sable said it conducts its business 'in a responsible and ethical manner.' It said it had conducted a review into the payments in 2011, but that no evidence implicating the company's Board of Directors was found and financial controls were tightened as a result. The payments documented by Global Witness were made by Delta Mining, in which Sable had only a minority interest, the company said. But the payments came from Sable's account and not Delta's, a spreadsheet detailing bribe payments shows.

Global Witness said it attempted to contact those listed as having received payments or gifts. Tolbert, Belleh, Kupee and Wotorson all denied taking bribes from Sable. Tolbert, however, did acknowledge accepting payments to the football team. Saytumah, Tyler, ECB Jones and Fombah Sirleaf did not respond to letters hand-delivered to their offices. Sherman declined to comment on grounds of confidentiality, although he acknowledged that his firm made unspecified payments from its Sable client account.

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