Liberia: Arrest Warrant Out for Ex - Defense Minister

... and his two deputies

The Criminal Court 'C' at the Temple of Justice on Friday, October 11, 2019, issued an arrest warrant for three former ministers from the Ministry of National Defense, including the former minister, Brownie J. Samukai, Jr., St. Jerome Larbele, and Joseph F. Johnson, on claims of misapplying some US$1.7 million from the welfare and supplementary pension benefits fund of officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), while they served in at the Ministry during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Larbele served as deputy Defense Minister for Operations, while Johnson was the deputy Minister for Administration.

Samukai, together with Larbelee and Johnson were on Friday formally indicted (charged) with multiple crimes, ranging from money laundering, economic sabotage, criminal facilitation and criminal conspiracy.

Credible information obtained by the Daily Observer reveals that none of the accused were served copies of the writ of arrest up to the publication of this story.

The case was brought against the accused by the Assets Investigative Restitution and Recovery Team (AIRReT), headed by Cllr. Arthur Johnson.

Solicitor General Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus and AIRReT Chief Prosecutor, Cllr. Arthur Johnson

Though the Government of Liberia, in August 2009, recommended that the appropriate and right thing to do is restitution or refund the full amount of US$1,147,656.35 that was expended on the AFL for the past several years. "This refund shall be immediately provided in the next budgetary appropriation to the AFL by the government, not an individual minister or its designate(s), the recommendation then said.

In August 2009, the Ministry of Defense established a contributory savings involving deduction from all ranks of the AFL for their welfare and supplementary pension benefit after their years of honorable service. As of October 2017, the amount of US$2,062,160.14 (including accrued interest), were collected and deposited into that account at Ecobank. And, it was established that about US$1,147,656.35 were spent on the AFL, and the balance in the account was US$688,964.96 as of November 8, 2017.

What makes the arrest warrant for the former ministers of defense a special case is that, the AIRReT chose to ignore the August 2009 recommendations of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) that was established by then Brig/Gen. Daniel Ziankahn, AFL former Chief of Staff (COS) to determine the status, utilization and balances of said account.

At the conclusion of the investigation, the board, among others, said that the ministry did not establish guidelines, nor a clear policy on the utilization of this welfare account, and that the ministry did not provide timely information to personnel of the AFL on the operations and utilization of said account.

The findings also said that the ministry authorized the expenditure of funds from this account on soldiers' welfare without the requisite consent of the AFL High Command. That all monies spent on military personnel welfare should have been handled by and through the government normal budgetary appropriation, and not from the welfare of the soldiers, and that the ministry should not have used the funds for the benefit of the soldiers without requisite budgetary appropriation.

It continues, "Documents revealed that expenditure made from this welfare account were for the benefits of AFL personnel and their families, but should have never been done so."

However, the findings noted that the ministry is responsible for procedural lapses in the management, expenditure and utilization of said funds, no mention of misappropriation.

Consequently, the report maintained that the government has determined that it is appropriate, and the right thing to do is restitution or refund the full amount of US$1,147,656.35 that was expended on the AFL for the past several years. "This refund shall be immediately provided in the next budgetary appropriation to the AFL by the government."

Henceforth, the AFL shall manage all of its accounts by itself, including welfare account, through their chain of command without any hindrance, nor interference from authorities of the ministry, according to the findings.

It went on, "There shall be no further withdrawal from this account until such time when a clear and concise policy is put into place that will articulate the management, procedure, criteria and authorization for the usage and expenditure of monies from the AFL and welfare account.

Also, there shall be no further deduction from the morale and welfare account," adding, "The ministry shall not utilize any funds appropriated for or belonging to the AFL for any purpose absolutely whatsoever."

Contrary to the findings and recommendations, the AIRReT through Solicitor General, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus, openly disclosed that there was an initial indictment for the immediate former Minister of Defense, Brownie Samukai, as it relates to the usage of the AFL funds.

But Solicitor General Cephus said that he has mandated the Asset Investigation, Restitution and Recovery Team (AIRReT), which is headed by Cllr. Arthur Johnson, to do a comprehensive review and investigation in all of the cases until an official indictment can proceed.

"I asked for a more holistic and comprehensive review before any indictment can be levied against anybody," Cephus said.

It is not clear as to whether the comprehensive investigation by AIRReT's chief prosecutor, Cllr. Johnson, takes into consideration the recommendations of the AFL's board of inquiry.

The AIRReT is charged with the responsibility to investigate, restitute and subsequently recover funds that were embezzled, and misappropriated from the government as revealed by reports submitted authorities at the General Auditing Commission (GAC), and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC).

It can be recalled that Sayeh and Sayeh Law Firm, representing Samukai, in its response to the indictment, admitted to the recommendations, which he said that it calls for refund by government through budgetary appropriation.

However, defendant Samukai has said that from 2014 up to and including 2017, the Ministry of National Defense did not receive any operational fund to replenish the ones that were used from the Welfare Funds to support, sustain, and maintain the welfare, mission, and operations of the AFL.

Also, in his in own defense, Samukai said that a decision was reached between former President Sirleaf and President George Weah during series of meetings held together between January 13 and 17, 2018, and with the leadership of the AFL, that the incoming Weah administration will refund all funds spent from the AFL Welfare Fund.

For the record, Samukai said that on January 17, 2018, then President-elect George Weah held a meeting at his residence in Rehab, Paynesville, with our client, then Minister of National Defense, along with senior leadership of the AFL, where they discussed the outstanding issue of refund to the AFL Welfare Fund, and President Weah confirmed, and reiterated in that meeting that he and Madam Sirleaf had met and discussed this situation, and agreed to refund all funds spent on the AFL from the AFL Welfare Fund during the passage of the budget 2018."

"During this meeting," Samukai said, "President-Elect Weah, also read and approved the draft press statement presented to him, which had already been read and approved by then President Sirleaf and the senior leadership of the AFL for release to the public as the official resolution of this matter."

Samukai alleged that President Weah, true to his words through budgetary appropriation, delivered on his promise and made full refund payments to the AFL as evidenced by final payment made in the amount of US$460,000 in July 2018.

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