Liberia: NEC Boss in Conflict of Interest?

Davidetta Browne Lansanah, Chairperson, National Elections Commission

.... New findings suggest why Tuma Enterprises got US$182K contract

The questionable procurement arrangement between the National Elections Commission and Tuma Enterprises for the supply of facial recognition thermometers continues to haunt the hierarchy of the electoral body.

Since the Daily Observer broke the story revealing that NEC was leasing twenty pieces of facial recognition thermometers from Tuma Enterprises at the total cost of US$182,320, the Daily Observer has learned that the Vice President for Operations at Tuma Enterprises, in person of David T. Browne, happens to be the biological brother of Davidetta Browne Lansanah, Chairperson of the NEC.

When contacted, Madam Lansanah did not deny her relation to David T. Browne, but declined to comment further, especially when questioned about the issue of conflict of interest. 

But in an exclusive interview yesterday, Anthony Sengbe, the NEC’s Executive Director, claimed that the NEC chair had no influence over the bidding process.

Documents provided to the Daily Observer by the NEC suggest that the NEC held a restricted bid process in which three Liberian-owned Information Technology firms, including Tuma Enterprises, were invited to submit sealed bids for the provision of an Electronic Verification System (i.e., facial recognition thermometers).

According to the NEC official, “Tuma Enterprises was the most responsive in the bidding process,” hence their final selection and approval by a panel of procurement officials. 

An official of one of the other firms invited, HAK Technology, admitted to the Daily Observer that, indeed, they received a letter of invitation to participate in the bid process, but said they did not respond to the letter. The third company, Smart Systems, could not be reached for comment. 

The system

The Electronic Verification System, according to an official front the NEC Information Technology department, is more than simply the facial recognition thermometer equipment; it includes the software that powers it to capture specific data which is fed to the NEC’s Data Center. 

According to the IT official, though he was not involved in the procurement process, he attested that the customization works needed to support the Electronic Verification System could very well be an expensive venture. 

“Let’s say you bought a smartphone for US$400. By the time you have entered all your contacts, downloaded your apps, photos, recordings and other information to the phone to make it useful to you, it is suddenly worth more than US$4,000 to you,” the IT officer said. “But we are only the implementers and have nothing to do with pricing.” 

The Electronic Verification System, according to him, involves the facial recognition and thermometer equipment, the customized software to capture the data, as well as a customized power bank for each of the thermometers so that they continue to function and transmit the requisite data in the event of a power outage. The official from HAK Technology told the Daily Observer that they were contacted by Tuma Enterprises to build the customized power bank solution for the entire system. 

According to the IT officer, the hardware materials become outdated within 12 to 18 months, hence the need for NEC to lease the equipment, instead of an outright purchase. 

According to the IT officer, the customized system used to secure all of the variables responsible to collect all requisite data including automatic photographing, storing of the photos and information associated as well as determining body temperatures is the actual product to which most of the amount was spent on rather than the physical infrastructure (thermometer).

“This came in to help us track down all basic information on those we hire, train and deploy to work for the Commission on a temporary basis such as conduct of elections,” the IT officer said. He explained that too many times, dishonesty became an issue and NEC struggled to keep track of many of its non-permanent workers, even if they received their payment sometime before.

“It is a pilot program to help us mitigate the challenge of dealing with the many conflicting issues on identities of persons who work for the Commission and demand pay multiple times,” the IT specialist said.

However, according to him, the customized software will be maintained up to and during the 2023 elections cycle, so there will not be a need to procure new software. But there may be new, upgraded models of the hardware components of the system.

Conflict of Interest

Back to the issue of conflict of interest, the aforementioned NEC executive said all procedures in accordance with the PPCC law were followed. 

“We received a letter of ‘No Objection’ from PPCC dated August 27, 2021 to conduct a ‘Restricted Bidding’ for computer supplies and ICT equipment, and Verification Equipment rental,” said Sengbe, who provided the Daily Observer a copy of the letter from the PPCC.

According to him, and also supported by Joseph Kerkulah, the new Director of the Procurement Department at the NEC, Tuma Enterprises, HAK Technology and Smart Systems were formally invited to participate in the bidding process but only Tuma responded and, following a vetting process, became qualified to lease to NEC the thermometers with the Electronic Verification System.

Tuma Enterprises is owned by Arnold Badio, according to the company’s  Business Registry certificate.  David T. Browne, brother to Davidetta Browne Lansanah, Chairperson of NEC is the Vice President for Operations of Tuma Enterprises, findings in the possession of the Daily Observer show.

As reported in the breaking story by the Daily Observer, Badio neither denied nor confirmed doing business with NEC but asked that NEC should be the source that should be providing details about the transaction, rather than Tuma Enterprises.

PPCC’s role

The Daily Observer’s report preceding this report has it mentioned that the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) could not trace any documents related to the NEC leasing of the digital thermometers and the clarity provided yesterday by the NEC Executive Director was that the amount used to procure the materials was below the PPCC’s threshold.

According to Sengbe, the information also verified with the PPCC by the Daily Observer, any transaction in amount below US$200,000 is not subject to any open bidding process unless sole sourcing is to be done.

Why did the NEC boss not come clean to address these concerns?

Before the Daily Observer learned about the family connection between Commissioner Lansanah and Tuma Enterprises, multiple attempts were made by the newspaper to seek clarity from the NEC communication’s office and Madam Lansanah herself, but to no avail.

Thus, the discovery of the fact that her brother is a senior official of the company that won the bid, coupled with the earlier blatant refusal by the NEC Chairperson to provide details about the procurement arrangement, when requested, appears to seriously tarnish the image of a highly sensitive integrity institution such as the National Elections Commission. Regardless of how legitimate the procurement process might have been, the media and public opinion firestorm that resulted from the apparent lack of transparency may nonetheless haunt the elections body as 2023 draws near.