16 May 2016

Liberia: Sherman Denies GW 'Fabrications'

Photo: Liberian Observer
Liberia's ruling Unity Party Chairman, Varney Sherman.

Monrovia — The Liberian nation was stunned, yet again, when another nerves-wrecking corruption scandal allegedly involving former and current officials in the Ellen Sirleaf administration shot its way to the public domain last week. Since the incumbency of the Sirleaf administration in 2006, and followed immediately by the President's vow to make "corruption number one public enemy," there continue to be devastating outbreaks of corruption in Government than there have been outbreaks of punitive and curtailment actions against perpetrators. Concurrently, the accused in most corruption reports--perhaps true President Sirleaf's proposition that corruption has a way using the ill-gotten wealth to fight back--have fought back vociferously to discredit and drown those reports with the patronage of governmental inertia. Yet the dints of kleptocracy keep popping up here and there, the most recent outbreak coming from and reported by the London-based Global Witness which has splashed a litany of bribery allegations at a horde of bigwigs, former and present officials of Government. The man cited by Global Witness as being at the vortex of the alleged scandal, ruling Unity Party Chairman and leading member of the Liberian Senate, H. Varney Gboto Sherman, swiftly responded to the report, distancing himself and his Sherman & Sherman Law Firm afar from all the allegations levied by the British corruption-watchdog NGO. The Analyst reports.

The public discourse particularly fanned by media reportages was charged last week when the British NGO, Global Witness released a damning investigative report accounting for what it gathered to be massive bribery scandal in Government.

In its recent report, the Global Witness which has in the past unveiled shady deals in Liberia's forest and mining sectors accused several present and former officials in the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration as taking bribes from a mining company, Sable Mining, to change Liberia's mining laws to give the company leverage in taking over the Wologizi Mountain.

Global Witness Alleges

According to the British watchdog NGO, Grand Cape Mount Senator and UP Chairman H. Varney B. Sherman and his Sherman & Sherman Law firm were used to dish out handsome amounts of United States to the government officials.

The Global Witness alleged that that Sable Mining paid bribes listed in an account statement by Sable and Varney Sherman's law firm, Sherman & Sherman the former and current government officials.

Speaker Alex Tyler, according to the Global Witness, was bribed as consulting fees US$75,000.00; US$50,000.00 was paid to Richard Tolbert, former Chairman of the National Investment Commission); US$50,000.00 was paid to Morris Saytumah, former Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs), and US$10,000.00 to Willie Belleh, former Chairman of the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission.

The group further alleged that two mystery persons coded "Big Boy 01" and"Big Boy 02" US$250,000.00 each by Sable Mining through Senator Sherman and his Sherman & Sherman.

Other payments made by the company through Senator Sherman, according to the Global Witness include US$9,168.00 to NSA Director Fombah Sirleaf for a trip to South Africa; US$5,000.00 to Sumo Kupee, former a Senator as consulting fees; US$5,000.00 to Cletus Wotorson, a former Speaker of the Senate for Consulting fees; and US$5,500.00 to Ernest C.B. Jones, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy for 'Accommodation' for Jones and Chris Onanuga, a company fixer.

Sherman Denies

The man who is in the center of the Global Witness allegations has swiftly responded to the report, describing as "reckless disregard for the truth" on the part of the British NGO.

Though he said he was contacted before the release of the report, but he could not deny or confirm exhibits forwarded to him by Global Witness because, according to him, "I am a professional lawyer and whatever I and/or Sherman & Sherman did or did not do for Sable Mining, we did in our capacity as their lawyers."

He continued: "I and Sherman & Sherman are prohibited by law and the Liberian Constitution from divulging to anyone what we did for Sable Mining or did not do for Sable Mining when we served as their lawyers in Liberia in 2010. Our code of professional ethics and the Liberian Constitution prohibits us from making any such disclosures and we will subscribe to those tenets even if we were to be taken to the gallows to be hanged; this is the standard of legal professionalism we took an Oath to uphold and we shall uphold it forever."

The Grand Cape Mount County Senator said he was compelled to speak to the media on the matter after the release of the report because, "I have chosen to speak to you today merely to expose the improbability and impracticality of the Global Witness Report and to show how impossible it is for either Sable Mining or I to pay bribes for things that Sable Mining never obtained in Liberia."

Senator Sherman explained his role further: "The Global Witness Report says that Sable Mining hired me to secure one of Liberia's last large mining assets, the Wologozi iron ore concession in northern Liberia. That is not true; Sable Mining hired Sherman & Sherman, and therefore me, to provide legal services to them in respect of their interest in agricultural and mineral business in Liberia; and we performed those tasks very diligently and honestly. I wonder how could Global Witness have known the purpose for which Sable Mining hired Sherman & Sherman?

"The Global Witness Report says that I told Sable Mining that in order to obtain the contract the company (Sable Mining) must first get Liberia's concession law changed by bribing senior government officials. This is not true and there is absolutely no basis for this assertion. Global Witness claims that it relies on "sources closely familiar with the discussions" but Global Witness never disclosed the names of those sources. Global Witness claimed that its account is "backed up by leaked emails and company documents seen by Global Witness" but none of these leaked emails and company documents was described in their Report in order for an independent person to verify them."

He categorically denied the "fabrications", stating further that he and his Sherman & Sherman would have never ever violated Liberian law and placed any such discussions in "emails or company documents", which could be easily exposed to Global Witness or any other investigators.

"Global Witness also said Jonathan Gant, its Senior Campaigner said that 'Sable Mining and Sherman paid bribes to change Liberia's law and get their hands on one of the most prized assets, the Wologizi concession'; and this is another fabrication, which has no basis whatsoever."

First, he continued, Wologizi was never considered by him or anybody else in the mineral industry to be a prized asset of Liberia, and besides, in 2010 or thereabouts, Liberia had not offered Wologizi for the purpose of a concession.

"Even the Liberia Government, in its written reaction to the Global Witness Report, said in part, that 'However, we wish to clarify that the government of Liberia has never initiated, commissioned, nor participated in any process for granting a concession of the Wologizi Mountains to Sable.'"

Also on account of the government denial, Senator Sherman said, "Certainly, there was no basis for the outrageous allegation made by Global Witness. Why would Sable Mining, with my assistance, have to bribe Liberian Government officials for a mineral deposit that was never considered by the Liberian Government for a concession?"

Further defending himself, the ruling Party Chairman said Global Witness claimed that Sable Mining, through him paid bribes listed in an account statement by Sable and Varney Sherman's law firm, Sherman & Sherman.

"The Report claims that as consulting fees US$75,000.00 was paid to Alex Tyler (Speaker of the House of Representatives); US$50,000.00 was paid to Richard Tolbert (Chairman of the National Investment Commission); US$50,000.00 was paid to Morris Saytumah (Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs); and US$10,000.00 to Willie Belleh (Chairman of the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission).

"However, Global Witness was never clear as to what these Liberian Government officials were being bribed for and how Sable Mining benefitted from these alleged huge payments. And the only reason why Global Witness speculated is that they had no evidence to back up their claims. More importantly, to the best of my knowledge, none of these alleged payments were ever made to these Liberian Government officials."

Regarding the so-called "Big Boy 01" and "Big Boy 02" to whom Global Witness Report claimed that the amount of US$250,000.00 was paid in 2010, Senator Sherman said neither Sherman & Sherman nor he know any Liberian Government official or anybody else who was designated "Big Boy 01" or "Big Boy 02" and certainly no payment was made to either of these persons directly by him on behalf of Sable Mining.

He said no payment to any such Liberian Government officials was facilitated by either Sherman & Sherman or him, adding, "So, where did Global Witness get its information from to accuse me of assisting Sable Mining to pay bribes to "Big Boy 01" and "Big Boy 02"? This is purely another outrageous fabrication."

"Another set of alleged payments, which Sherman & Sherman and I know nothing about are Fombah Sirleaf (US$9,168.00) for a trip to South Africa," he said. "US$5,000.00 to Sumo Kupee (a Senator) for Consulting fees; US$5,000.00 to Cletus Wotorson (a Senator, Speaker of the Senate) for Consulting fees; and US$5,500.00 to Ernest C.B. Jones (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy) for 'Accommodation' for Jones and Chris Onanuga, a company fixer. These are another set of fabrications that Sherman & Sherman and I are not aware of and nothing is said in the Global Witness Report as to why these payments would be made and to accomplish what for Sable Mining.'

To change the PPCC Act as alleged by Global Witness, two principal actors had to be involved. The first is the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, Cllr Sherman said, "and the two persons who would have acted on their behalf in 2010 were Eugene Shannon (the Minister himself) and Ernest C.B. Jones (the Deputy Minister for Operations)".

He noted: "If nobody knew that in 2010, it is I who knew that because I have counseled investors in the mineral industry all my 36 years of law practice. Why would I then assist Sable Mining in paying huge sums of money as bribes to Alex Tyler, Richard Tolbert and Morris Saytumah and nothing to Eugene Shannon? Why would I assist Sable Mining in paying huge sums of bribes to those persons and "peanuts" to Ernest C.B. Jones?

"I never would have done such things. These claims and allegations are so very improbable to the extent that they shock the imagination. As for the "Consulting fees" to Sumo Kupee and Cletus Wotorson, neither I nor Sherman & Sherman know of any such payments. For what and to gain what from these former legislators!"

He indicated that the Global Witness Report referred to Sable Mining's activities in Liberia as "misadventures" and that Sable Mining was never awarded the Wologizi contract. And he asked: "Does anybody who has lived in Liberia since I started practicing law in 1980 know of "misadventures" that I have been associated with? Of course not!"

"Certainly," he said, "I would never advise my client or facilitate his payment of bribes for matters which I know or should have known that the receivers of the payments could not deliver and did not have the capacity to deliver. My career has not always been successful as I have lost several cases before the Supreme Court; but nobody will say that I or Sherman & Sherman bribed anybody for something that either I or my client was not entitled to. Neither Sherman & Sherman nor I engage in such practices."

Political Contribution

The Global Witness Report also alleged that US$200,000.00 was paid from Sable Mining's funds as "political contribution - UP Convention" and in less than three weeks thereafter Senator Sherman was elected as the party Chairman; something that the implied that the "political contribution" caused his election as Unity Party Chairman.

"This is so far from the truth," he said. "Global Witness did not know and still does not know that the UP Convention was intended to finally consummate the merger between Liberia Action Party, Liberia Unification Party and UP. I was the standard bearer of Liberia Action Party and in consideration of the merger, it was agreed that I would be the party Chairman for the new UP; we had this agreement months before the Convention. I certainly did not need any political contribution from Sable Mining to become party Chairman of UP."

Cllr Sherman further repudiated the Global Witness Report which also claimed US$25,000.00 was paid by Sable Mining as "Political contribution - UP Secretary General resignation" and this implies that the money was paid to get Henry Fahnbulleh to resign his election as the UP Secretary General.

Again he said, "This is another fabrication, as Henry Fahnbulleh did not resign because of a bribe.

"He resigned because I had said that I would not agree to be inducted into office with him as Secretary General and that the basis of my disagreement is that Liberian law provides that no two persons from the same county shall serve as senior officials of a political party," he further defended himself on the political contribution. "I did not oppose Henry Fahnbulleh before his election or during his election because I was not aware of this law at that time; I opposed him after his election. And it is because of this provision of Liberian law that Henry Fahnbulleh eventually resigned, not because Sable Mining gave him a bribe directly or through me or Sherman & Sherman."

Government Probe

There have been massive calls from the public for the Sirleaf administration embattled by corruption to set up an independent panel to probe the Global Witness report.

However, the President announced last week that, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice, he had appointed a Taskforce to investigate the Global Witness report.

An Executive Mansion release said the Liberian leader announced the decision following a review of the report, which was submitted to the Government of Liberia by Global Witness alleging corruption and bribery on the part of several former and current officials of government.

The President named her Minister of State Without Portfolio, Cllr. J. FonatiKoffa, as the Special Prosecutor along with a team of lawyers from the Ministry of Justice including the Solicitor General, Cllr. Betty Lamin Blamo. The Task Force is also charged with investigating and resolving all allegations contained in current and past GAC reports.

The Liberian leader has also urged all individuals named in the report to submit to and cooperate fully with the investigation.

In a related development, President Sirleaf has further written British Prime Minister David Cameron requesting full cooperation and assistance from the British Government, as a UK company is involved.

The President Sirleaf has said "the [Global Witness] report brings home the fact that the real purveyors of corruption are those predatory investors who rely on the weaknesses of some officials and the vulnerability of poor countries to carry out dubious business transactions while being harbored by rich countries".

She called on the leaders of "rich and powerful countries to use this matter involving Sable Mining to take strong punitive actions against criminal- minded individuals, who export corruption to African countries, obtain illegal wealth and store their ill-gotten wealth in these western countries while economies of poor countries suffer as a result of these illicit deals".

President Sirleaf also pointed outthat the foreign businessmen and corporations that are alleged to have paid bribes must also be investigated and prosecuted by their respective governments.

Meanwhile, the Government of Liberia has formally requested Global Witness to make available all pieces of evidence cited in the report to assist the Task Force in the investigation.

In a letter to Global Witness, Information Minister Eugene Nagbe said: "The Government of Liberia is concerned about these grave allegations of bribery and corruption and therefore formally requests Global Witness to make available all pieces of evidence on this matter so that it can take appropriate actions to investigate and prosecute if a violation of the laws of Liberia is determined".

Minister Nagbe said: "Transparency and anti-corruption watchdog organizations must transcend from merely making allegations in reports to adducing evidence to concerned authorities for appropriate legal action to be taken".

Global Witness Welcomes Government's Investigation

Meanwhile, the Global Witness says it welcomes the Liberian government's announcement to investigate bribes and payments made by the UK mining company Sable and its lawyer Varney Sherman. In recent years, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made efforts to hold accountable those who break Liberia's natural resource laws, including prosecuting those involved in illegal logging and oil deals.

"We are hopeful that this investigation into the mining scandal will be similarly thorough, demonstrating Liberia's commitment to fighting corruption," the group said in a release. "Global Witness encourages this collaboration. If it is found by the Liberian and British governments that those involved in this mining scandal did break the law, the authorities of both countries should prosecute and make good on their pledges to end impunity."

Global Witness also says it looks forward to cooperating with the Liberian and British authorities to ensure the government's investigation is a success.

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