Monrovia — When Charles Sirleaf, the eldest son of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was arrested along with five others, including former Governor J. Milton Weeks, last February, it marked a turning point in the controversy surrounding the alleged disappearance LD16 billion ($100 million (€88 million) from the Central Bank of Liberia.
The saga triggered a wave of protests and brought the George Weah-led government on its heels.
The arrest followed the release of two major reports detailing widespread alleged malpractice at the Central Bank of Liberia.
Funded by the United States Aid for International Development (USAID), a London-based firm, Kroll, was hired to carry out the audit. The supposed disappearance led to a travel departure ban on 15 people, including Sirleaf.
Reports Cited Risks
In its conclusion, Kroll identified discrepancies at every stage of the process for controlling the movement of banknotes into and out of the (central bank)," the risk consultancy said in its report that had been commissioned by the United States at the request of the Liberian government.
Separately, a Liberian government report found that notes worth $16.5 million remained unaccounted for and said the bank's management "deviated from conventional best practices."
In 2016, Liberia's House of Representatives passed a resolution approving the printing of 5 billion Liberian dollars (US$31 million; €27 million).
The Central Bank requested an additional 10 billion Liberian dollars, but the request was denied by the Senate. The bank engaged a company to print the additional banknotes anyway.
"This raised the risk of unintended negative economic effect, including high inflation and the rapid depreciation" of the Liberian dollar, the report said.
Kroll said its investigation found no evidence of a large shipment of cash going missing as had been reported by local media. Instead, the new bank notes all arrived from a Swedish company, but the central bank then failed to properly track what was done with them, the report said.
Mr. Sirleaf was a deputy governor during the period when the bank notes were illegally ordered.
Besides Mr. Weeks and Mr. Sirleaf, Mr. Dorbor Hagba, Director of Banking, Richard Hne Walker, Director of Banking and Payment Systems and Mr. Joseph Dennis, Deputy Director for Internal Audit were also arrested, charged and indicted.
Former Governor Weeks who had stepped down when President Weah took office in January 2018 - surrendered to police.
The controversy was also marred by the mysterious death of Mr. Matthew J. Innis, the institution's one-time deputy director for micro-finance in the regulation and supervision division, who was killed in an alleged hit-and-run road incident.
Late this week, the government announced that all charges that were drawn against Mr. Sirleaf was being dropped in the LD$16 million case.
According to Solicitor General Sayma Cyrennius Cephus, the charges were dropped after it was discovered that Mr. Sirleaf's only mistake in the process was an "egregious abuse of administrative discretion" because he failed to follow through with the instructions he had received earlier as it relates to the printing of the first L$5 billion. Cllr. Cephus also termed Mr. Sirleaf's error as a "gross malfeasance" adding, "But not criminal."
Said the Solicitor General: "So what they did, they departed from the original objective of replacing the legacy banknote or using Thomas De La Rue with the designs, specifications, texture, physical appearance they went to Crane Currency. When they went to Crane Currency, Crane Currency printed and delivered every other thing that they needed."
The Solicitor General stated that Mr. Sirleaf printed an entirely "new money", containing L$500 denomination, which he said wasn't the original objective and it was infused into the economy. "Instead or withdrawing or replacing the legacy banknotes, they added the new money into the economy, so there was the concomitant or parallel usage of both the mutilated banknotes, which is the legacy banknotes."
Weeks in in the Cold?
Additionally, three other officials at the bank - Hagba, Walker and Dennis - are also off the hook with the Solicitor General announcing his office has entered Nolle Prosequi without prejudice to the state in the three men's behalf. "If you look at the roles that Dorbor Hagba, Richard Walker and Joseph Dennis played, they played their roles respectively based on the instructions coming from the board by and thru the Executive Governor. So, the Republic of Liberia is going after the Executive Governor and the Board," the SG averred.
This leaves former Governor Weeks as the fall guy in the LD16 billion saga.
Associate Justice Yusuf Kaba, after reviewing the matter, ordered that Mr. Weeks' case should start from scratch because he took an appeal to the full bench of the Supreme Court, thereby detaching himself from the rest of the accused men, while Sirleaf and others agreed to move back to the lower court to begin the case at new.
Judge Blamo Dixon who had presided over the case for three weeks before surprisingly stepping aside from it on September 26, 2019.
Cllr. Cephus accused Weeks and the other members of the CBL Board of Governors, of unilaterally printing L$10.5B "plus excess" without a legislative approval and subsequently LS$2.6B of this money became unaccounted for.
"They didn't get authorization, there was a blatant attempt of concealing information; they withdrew from the national treasury reserve US$10M unauthorized to print L$10.5B plus excess out of which L$2.6B is unaccounted for," Cllr. Cephus said; adding, "That constitutes theft. They conspired, they concealed, they grossly misled and sabotaged the Liberian economy."
Lots of Contradictions Over 'Missing Money'
Where thinks get a little murky is the intricacies surrounding the government's own assertions in the case.
For example, in 2018, CBL Governor Nathaniel Patray stated that there was no money missing. "Records from Crane Currency of Sweden, which was contracted to print the money, show that Crane delivered 15.5 billion Liberian dollars through Freeport and Roberts International Airport between 2016 and 2018," "All these monies were logged by the CBL (Central Bank of Liberia) and delivered into the reserved vaults of the CBL." https://qz.com/africa/1417540/liberias-missing-cash-container-not-missing-says-central-bank/
Secondly, Liberia's Finance Minister Samuel Tweah also stated that there was no money missing: "The total amount of money printed in the country over the last two years is L$15 billion, forget about what Minister [Lenn Eugene] Nagbe said. So, the fake story that came out about L$9 billion is saying that of the L$15 billion, nine is missing - now think about that - the entire amount of money supplied in the country half of it is missing - you don't have an economy, you don't have a country," https://frontpageafricaonline.com/amp/business/economy/liberia-finance-minister-samuel-tweah-contradicts-previous-admission-of-missing-money/
Thirdly, in 2020, the Liberian government dropped charges against Crane currency and stated again that none of the money printed had gone missing and was all accounted for: "... the company accurately and honestly accounted for, audited, invoiced and was paid for every banknote delivered on both orders. Crane Currency did in fact deliver the correct number and value of banknotes, as set out in two (2) delivery contracts and subsequent documented agreements between Crane Currency and the Central Bank of Liberia. It is clearly documented that every banknote manufactured by Crane was delivered to and accepted by the Central Bank of Liberia and that Crane was paid the correct amount for the banknotes delivered," the Justice Minister's letter to Crane Currency stated." https://frontpageafricaonline.com/amp/business/economy/liberia-government-drops-charges-against-crane-currency-paving-way-for-printing-of-new-money/
Fact-Checking SG Cephus
And this week, when the government announced that it was dropping charges against all co-defendant, Solicitor General Cephus appeared personal when he specifically said that he would go after former governor Weeks. At a press conference he stated: "Today, Mr. Sirleaf is a free man. The rest facilitated, so, we are not coming after them. But for the man up there, Milton Weeks, who took the appeal, and threatened to say he will sue to government, we will get him."
Additionally, in his news conference Friday, the SG made several statements that are not factual:
For example, Thomas De la Rue was the printer of the old currency or legacy currency notes. This is false. The printer of the old notes was Oberthur Fiduciary, a French company.
The SG also stated that LD$2.6 billion from the second L$10 billion printing remains unaccounted for.
An FPA investigation has found this assertion to be false. The GoL by its own admission in its letter to Crane Currency dated January 10, 2020 stated "that the company accurately and honestly accounted for, audited, invoiced and was paid for every banknote delivered on both orders. Crane Currency did in fact deliver the correct number and value of banknotes, as set out in two (2) delivery contracts and subsequent documented agreements between Crane Currency and the Central Bank of Liberia. It is clearly documented that every banknote manufactured by Crane was delivered to and accepted by the Central Bank of Liberia and that Crane was paid the correct amount for the banknotes delivered."
The SG also stated that only two members of the Board of Directors have started "talking" with him and will be treated differently because they are cooperating. All of the members of the Board of Governors including the Executive Governor have always cooperated with the government in its investigation.
All of the members of the Board of Governors including the Executive Governor Milton Weeks have already made sworn statements to the PIT during its investigation. These statements were made under oath and represent their recollections surrounding the printing.
Additionally, the SG explained that the government is coming after the man who says he is going to sue the government.
FrontPageAfrica has gathered that Mr. Weeks never really threatened to sue the government but simply appealed to the full Supreme Court bench, the ruling the of the Justice in Chamber, which according to his lawyers, is Mr. Weeks' legal right.
SG Cephus himself confirmed this in his press conference and Weeks' lawyers are poised to argue that making an appeal to the Supreme Court does not equate to saying one will sue the government.
With Sirleaf and most of the major players off the hook, the saga of the missing billions continues to be mired in lingering mystery with many unanswered questions.
Did the recent announcement by the CBL that it has completed a competitive bidding process for the printing of additional Liberian dollar banknotes aimed at providing the public increased access to Liberian Dollars, have anything to do with the decision to drop charges against Crane, which has been selected to print new bills?
After reviewing proposals, Crane, according to CBL had the most competitive bid and has been contracted for the printing and delivery of 4 billion Liberian Dollars banknotes (in L$500 denomination). Under the terms of the contract, Crane will print and deliver the approved number of banknotes to the CBL in Monrovia in a reasonable timeframe.
While the printing of additional banknotes, according to the CBL, will help address the lingering liquidity problem and provide the Liberian people easier access to the cash they need to pay for food, school fees, health care, and other essential products and services, a lot of questions raised in both the Kroll and PITT report remain unanswered; in particular, the many discrepancies identified at every stage of the process into the printing of the LD16 billion.