LET’S LECTURE: PEPs Beware!

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Back in 2005 when I was campaigning vigorously for Ellen John Sirleaf, I had not the faintest idea that she would end up presiding over a sordid kleptocracy, one in which officials of this administration steal large sums of public money with gay abandon. Back then I was a true Ellen Sirleaf acolyte. I believed the woman walked on water. She could do no wrong.

My father, Harry Sr., was not so convinced. He and I used to have knock-down, drag-out arguments over her. Ten years ago, if I had been asked what would distinguish an Ellen Sirleaf administration from its predecessors, what I would NOT expect to see in her administration, without hesitation I would have put my head on the proverbial chopping block and said that corruption would not be tolerated in her administration, that her government would be a paragon of civic virtue. Subsequent events have shown that I would have lost my head several times.

It is not so much the poor personnel selections that have seen many square pegs put in round holes, not even the penchant for placing in senior positions Adolescents Needing Adult Supervision (ANAS), or her micromanaging style that seems to have paralyzed many of her government ministry and agency heads into chronic indecisiveness. It is the orgy of theft by people in high places that is likely to overshadow the many good things she has done and become her administration’s lasting legacy.

And when you ask people what can be done to arrest the avalanche, many throw their hands up in the air despairingly and say, “Nothing”. Well, that’s not quite true. When this administration quits the scene in January 2018, there will probably be enormous pressure on the next one to conduct investigations into some of the more egregious instances of corruption during this administration.

Many officials in the government are of the mistaken notion that if they steal public money and salt it away in a bank account outside the country, they are home and free. Not quite. The only foolproof way to steal public funds without detection is to dig a large hole in the ground and bury it. But if you transfer money through the international financial system, you create a paper trail.

Every US dollar transaction, no matter where it originates or terminates, passes through New York and the Federal Reserve system. And don’t think you can conceal your deception by putting the money in an account of a relative or close friend. That won’t shield you either. There is a legal principle called “tracing”. If ill-gotten gains can be traced to you, they can be confiscated. That is how the FBI recovers money, houses, jewelry, boats and other valuables from drug dealers. The old adage applies. “Caveat emptor”. If you buy tainted assets from a rogue, you can lose them, even if you were an innocent purchaser for value.

So, if you are, say, a cabinet minister earning US$60,000 a year, and all of a sudden a bank account is found in the South Sea island of Vanuatu with a stash of US$2 million in it in the name of your 3-year-old daughter, the law presumes that a reasonable man would consider that to be prima facie evidence of corruption. So unless you can show that you have Warren Buffet stock-picking genes in your DNA, you would be under obligation to prove a negative, i.e. to show that the millions in that bank account were not the proceeds of theft of public money.

Coming back to the matter of financial transactions flowing through the international banking system, the US government keeps tabs on the financial dealings of people known as Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs). I didn’t know what a PEP was until I went on a mission to the US Treasury with Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia. At the end of discussions, I was pulled into a little room where I was given a quick education about the PEPs. It was an eye opener.

Who is a PEP? It can be a lawmaker, a cabinet minister, the son of a president, the brother or sister of a president, or even a president. If you are a senior government official (especially of a poor Third World nation), you may qualify for that designation.

So, what’s the point? The point is that after you leave office, you can be brought to book. And Uncle Sam is a bitch. The US government will tolerate your peccadilloes while you are useful in promoting their national security interests. Then when you no longer useful, they can turn on you on a dime. Go ask the ghosts of the Shah of Iran, or Ferdinand Marcos, or Mobutu Sese Seko!

Yes, many of those misbehaving now think they can just get on a plane and skip town in January 2018. As we say in Liberian parlance, they miss it. Even if you take up residence in Outer Mongolia, you can extradited and be brought back to Liberia to face the music.

The thoughts expressed herein are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Daily Observer. The writer is a certified public accountant and a businessman. He can be reached at ([email protected])

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