Liberia: Gov’t Prosecutes NEC Boss for US$182K

NEC chair Davidetta Browne Lansanah. 

The  US$182Kcorruption trial against Davidetta Browne Lansanah, Chairperson of the National Election Commission, is expected to begin tomorrow with the submission of evidence from prosecutors. 

The electoral body chair faces counts of corruption, conflict of interest, and money-laundering by the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC)  in violation of Section 1.3.6, of the National Code of Conduct, which speaks against conflict of interest; Part II, Section 2.2 of the LACC Act and section 15.3 of the Money laundering Act of 2012.

Mrs. Lansanah’s trial follows a criminal probe by the LACC, which alleged that the electoral body chair did not disclose her vested interest in Tuma Enterprise Inc., before awarding the firm a contract of US$182,320 for the leasing of a facial recognition system — while presiding over the procurement committee for the contract. 

Tuma Enterprise is a firm with strong family links to the NEC chair. The company’s Vice President for Operations, David Browne is her paternal brother, while Arnold Badio, owner and incorporator of the company, is a brother to David Browne from the same Mother.

The trial, at Criminal Court ‘C’ will kick off with prosecutors’ submission of evidence against the NEC Chair based on the indictment.  Before then, both parties’ legal representatives have met Judge Ciapha Carey to agree on making available all legal instruments procurement before the case hearing on March 7.

At trial, prosecutors are likely to rely heavily on the LACC findings of the family ties between the NEC boss, and Tuma Enterprises founder and its Vice President for Operations, to prove the case of conflict of interest, and the accusation of insider trading and market manipulation, due to her position on the procurement committee or knowledge about the contract.

However, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt how the NEC chair may have influenced the procurement process. So far, documents seen by Daily Observer, whose investigation led to the LACC probe, suggest that the NEC held a restricted bid process in which three Liberian-owned firms, including Tuma Enterprises, were invited to submit sealed bids for the provision of an Electronic Verification System (i.e., facial recognition thermometers).

It was later revealed by NEC, after further inquiry by the Daily Observer at the time, that as part of their response that “Tuma Enterprises was the most responsive in the bidding process,” hence their final selection and approval by a panel of procurement officials.  

However, prosecutors would stand an easy chance with the issue of conflict of interest as the electoral body chair is yet to deny her relation to David T. Browne and Arnold Badio.  It is an unquestionable fact that Browne and Badio are relatives of the  NEC chair but what role she played to influence the awarding of the contract to Tuma Enterprise, is the uphill battle now facing prosecutors. 

Also, the LACC investigation validated the Daily Observer’s findings that  David Browne is the NEC chair’s “brother from the same father, while Badio, owner and incorporator of the company, is a brother to Browne from the same Mother.” And proving this would be essential to the prosecution, albeit with a dark cloud now hanging over the NEC, an integrity institution charged with the key responsibility of maintaining peace and stability through the conduct of free, fair, and transparent elections on a level playing field.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Lansanah’s lawyers are expected at trial to challenge the LACC’s conclusion that their client admitted influencing the US$180K contract. 

Even before the trial, she rejected the LACC’s claims of corruption, conflict of interest, and money laundering, in violation of Section 1.3.6 (Conflict of Interest) of the National Code of Conduct for all public officials and employees of the government; and Part II, Section 2.2 of the Act establishing the LACC that describes insider trading as an act of corruption; as well as violation section 15.2 of the Money laundering Act of 2012 which frowns against providing insider trading and market manipulations.

“Following its investigation, the LACC told the public that it had completed its investigation and read out an outcome claiming we had made certain admissions of guilt during our appearance before the LACC,” Mrs. Lansanah said in her public response to the LACC report in December 2021. 

“This is false and misleading. We appeared before the LACC with our legal counsels, submitted the requested documents, along with written statements,” she added. “At no time during the interviews did any of us ever make any admission of guilt as falsely stated during the December 15 LACC press conference.”

The LACC’s probe and criminal prosecution of the NEC chair came after the Daily Observer published an investigative report in November of 2021 that discovered that the electoral body leased twenty facial recognition thermometers at the total cost of US$182,320 from a firm with family links to the NEC chair.

The Observer reports revealed that Tuma Enterprises, which was hired by NEC to provide a facial recognition system for the conduct of by-election in four counties, had a relationship with the NEC chair in the person of its Vice President for Operations, who happens to be the biological brother of the NEC Chairperson.

It was also established that Arnold Badio, owner and incorporator of the company, is a maternal brother to David Browne. However, during the Daily Observer investigation, the NEC chair declined to comment on the relationship when asked for a response.  The leased equipment costs not more than US$1,500 on; but NEC opted not to procure its own, spending US$9,166 to rent a single facial recognition system from Tuma Enterprises, paying a total of US$183,320 for 20 units of the equipment. 

If the NEC had purchased the equipment, it would have saved a whopping US$153,320, while owning the equipment outrightly, instead of leasing it. 

But the NEC’s information technology engineers said the systems were leased to detect the temperatures of trainee poll workers ahead of the November 16, 2012 by-elections in Nimba, Bong, Grand Gedeh, and Bomi Counties as well as to monitor access and attendance for safe and efficient access control of personnel. According to them, the cost per unit included custom software integration to allow the thermometers to work as fully intended. 

Tuma Enterprise is a technology company established in Liberia in 2020 and has since won lucrative contracts from the government, including the building of a mobile app to keep track of travelers in and out of Liberia with regard to their COVID-19 status.