18 June 2019

Liberia: Charges Against Sable, Richard Tolbert Dropped?

Credible reports reaching the Daily Observer suggest that the Liberian government, in a sharp twist, has communicated with the Supreme Court, rather than Criminal Court 'C" to drop all criminal charges against Andrew Groves, Klaus Piprek and Richard Tolbert.

Criminal Court C had already begun hearings in the case involving the three named individuals as well as others including Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman, Bomi County Senator Morris Saytumah, former Minister of Lands Mines and Energy Dr. Eugene Shannon and his deputy, E.C.B. Jones.

The charges against Groves and Piprek were dropped in absentia. Sources told the Daily Observer that the request to drop charges against the accused named individuals was made by a special prosecutor, Cllr. Arthur Johnson, who was recently named to the post by the Solicitor General-designate, Cllr. Syrenius Cephus, when he spoke at the regular press briefing of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT).

Further, according to sources, the request submitted to the Supreme Court was being mulled by Chief Justice Korkpor who was considering sending the request back to the government on grounds that the matter was not before the Court, meaning the Supreme Court lacked both the jurisdiction and authority to handle a matter was not legally before it.

"Look, the government is mistaken to have delivered the communication to drop charges against Tolbert and Sable Mining to the Supreme Court, because the Court does not have anything to do with the matter. We are going to send the document back to the government," sources hinted this paper when the case resumed on Monday, June 17, at Criminal Court 'C.'

The decision to drop charges against the trio, Tolbert, Groves and Piprekk, came after three members of the defense team; Counselors Frank Musa Dean, Syrenius Cephus and Edwin Martin were appointed by President George Weah to serve at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Counselors Cephus and Martin, now Solicitor General-designate and Montserrado County Attorney, respectively, had initially served as lawyers for Tolbert, Groves and Piprek of Sable Mining, when the case was first heard and subsequently postponed. This was after the prosecution complained against then assigned Judge Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay's concurrence with Counselors Dean, Cephus and Martin, who argued that the emails and spreadsheet were illegally acquired by the then Presidential Taskforce that was prosecuting the individuals named in the US$950,000 Global Witness bribery report.

At Monday's hearing, charges that include economic sabotage, criminal conspiracy, criminal solicitation and criminal facilitation were openly read to the defendants who later pled not guilty to the indictment.

Other defendants, who answered to the indictment were Senator Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County; former House Speaker Alex Tyler; Christopher Hayes Onanuga (a Nigerian national), Sen. Morris Saytumah of Bomi County; former PPCC Chairman, Willie Belleh; and former Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy (MLME), Dr. Eugene Shannon; and former MLME Deputy Minister, E.C.B. Jones.

However, Groves and Piprek were not in court on Monday to answer to the reading of the indictment.

The GW report had alleged that the defendants received over US$950,000 in bribes through Sable's Liberian lawyer, Cllr. Varney Sherman, to alter the Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC) law that would have enabled the officials to award the Wologizi Mountain in Lofa County to Sable, absent any competitive bidding process.

Immediately afterwards, the defendants, as part of their constitutional and statutory rights, waived trial by jury, which means that assigned Judge Peter Gbeneweleh would serve as both judge and jury during the trial.

However, the case failed to continue after the prosecution requested a postponement of the matter to Wednesday, June 19, bringing their excuse for postponement to three in just three weeks.

The prosecution's indictment alleges that Sable Mining approved and transferred money to Cllr. Sherman and the Sherman and Sherman Law Firm, which was intended for use as bribes to several public officials of the government in consideration for their official action to amend the PPCC Act of 2010 to award exclusive rights to Sable Mining over Wologizi Mountain, in Lofa County.

Defendants Groves and Piprek, the court record claimed, were the principal masterminds of this entire scheme who approved and transferred money to Sherman and the Sherman and Sherman Law firm, which was intended to be paid as bribe to several public officials

It also claimed that defendant Richard Tolbert solicited and accepted US$50,000 from Sable from Sable Mining through Cllr. Sherman in his official capacity as chairman of the National Investment Commission in consideration for his official action, geared towards ensuring the amendment of the PPCC Act of 2010, to give undue advantage to Sable Mining over Wologizi and received contribution of US$20,000 through the Invincible Eleven sports association from Sable Mining, which he later demanded as a debt owed him by the IE.

Despite these allegations, the government has agreed to drop charges against Groves, Tolbert and Piprek.

It can be recalled that former Associate Justice Philip A. Z. Banks had earlier overruled trial Judge Varney Gbeissay' ruling, sustaining arguments by defense lawyers requiring the state to prove that emails, spreadsheets and other documentary evidence were not hacked. Justice Banks had maintained the burden of proof rested on defense lawyers to establish the truth of their allegations that the documents were indeed hacked.

"It was therefore an error by the trial judge to have required the state to prove that the documents were not hacked", Justice Banks observed at the time. Commenting on the matter following the Supreme Court's reversal of Judge Gbeissay's ruling, former Special Prosecutor, now Grand Kru District #2 Representative Fonati Koffa described the Supreme Court's decision as "vindication".

The former Special Prosecutor said, "We feel vindicated that prosecution was just right. We are relieved because the High Court has spoken and has agreed with us that we were on the right path".

Cephus and Martin were hired by Andrew Groves, chief executive officer of the London AIM-listed Sable Mining, who was indicted by a grand jury in June 2016, in connection with an alleged bribery scandal involving several senior Liberian officials.

Cllr. Dean represented the other defendants, including Senator Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County; former House Speaker Alex Tyler; Christopher Hayes Onanuga (a Nigerian national); former Chairman of the National Investment Commission Richard V. Tolbert; Sen. Morris Saytumah of Bomi County; former PPCC Chairman, Willie Belleh; and former Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy (MLME), Dr. Eugene Shannon; and former MLME Deputy Minister, E.C.B. Jones.

Given the above, were the Government of Liberia to continue with the case, it would mean the Justice Minister, the Solicitor General-designate and the Montserrado County Attorney, all being lead prosecutors will have to recuse themselves from the case because of their prior involvement, having represented some of the defendants.

The GW report had alleged that the defendants received over US$950,000 in bribes through Sable's Liberian lawyer, Cllr. Varney Sherman, to alter the Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC) law that would have enabled the officials to award the Wologizi Mountain in Lofa County to Sable, without any competitive bidding process.

The Daily Observer recalls the furore that ensued when prosecution's first witness and Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission investigator, Marc N. Kollie, testified that they had gathered credible information from emails and spreadsheets obtained from GW's private investigator Paul Sullivan and Heine Van Niekerk, a senior staff of Sable Mining, the UK mining company, when they met during their investigation in that country.

According to Kollie,"the email communication was documentary evidence obtained by the investigators as a means of the regular course of business transaction among the defendants," adding, "it was Heine Van Niekerk who gave the emails subject to these proceedings to the investigators."

Kollie said Niekerk also gave emails and other documents to private investigator Sullivan, "including business records of Liberia Iron Ore Investment," a subsidiary of Sable Mining. "Niekerk said he voluntarily turned over those documents to Sullivan to form cogent part of our resistance," the prosecution said.

The documents alleged Sherman exchanged emails with the other co-defendants, including Sable Mining, to change the law and subsequently award the Wologizi Mountain to Sable Mining.

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