Liberia: NEC Chair’s Fate to Be Decided Today

Davidetta Browne Lansanah, Chairperson, National Elections Commission.

.... Judge Carey is expected to either approve Chairperson Lansanah’s request to have the case thrown out due to procedural error, or deny such a motion and allow the case to proceed.

The Chairperson of the National Elections Commission could walk free if Judge Ciapha Carey of Criminal Court 'C' approved her lawyers’ motion to dismiss her criminal indictment on grounds that the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission violated the National Code of Conduct of 2014.

The LACC in its indictment, accused the electoral body chair, Davidetta Browne Lansanah, of corruption, conflict of interest, and money-laundering, 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.

Her trial follows a criminal investigation 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 of David Browne from the same Mother.

However, her lawyers have argued that there were procedural errors in how the indictment was formed by the LACC and that the anti-graft body violated the code of conduct (CoC) when it took upon itself the function of the Ombudsman, as provided by Section 12.2, to investigate and charge their client based on alleged violation of the law.

If Judge Carey’s rules in favor of the defendant, it would lead to the dismissal of the government’s indictment — paving the way for her to walk free without answering to any of the counts as contained in the LACC's indictment -- meaning the case could be effectively over before it even starts.  

Section 12.2 of the National Code of Conduct, which the electoral body chair is relying on, states that the office of Ombudsman “shall receive and investigate all complaints in respect to the adherence to the CoC.”

It added in the case where there is a determination of guilt and violation of the code by private and public officials and employees of the government, said violation shall be submitted by the Ombudsman to the LACC or other relevant agencies of the government. The office of Ombudsman shall be responsible to collaborate with the three branches of government and civil society organizations in order to develop regulations for the CoC.”

So far,  she and her lawyers are yet to deny the contents of the LACC indictment that she influenced the awarding of a US182,300 contract to a firm with which she has strong family ties. Her lawyer, Cllr. Augustine Toe, a former commissioner of the LACC, now serving as legal counsel for the defendant, claims that the action by the LACC to ascribe authority to the ombudsman is a clear violation of the CoC — a situation that qualified the indictment for dismissal.

Cllr. Toe argued that the LACC acted in the role of the Ombudsman to investigate violations of the CoC by public officials, which is illegal. “The LACC is taking power that has not been given to them by the law," he said. "They don't want to establish the Ombudsman because every day some of them are in violation of the CoC. This is why they are engaging in illegal means to solve legal problems.” 

But if Judge Carey were to deny her lawyer’s motion, the case goes to a full trial — leaving LACC with the coverage to ensure that they collect every piece of documentary evidence, and witnesses to testify during the trial, and prove the guilt of Mrs. Lansanah beyond a reasonable doubt.

And at trial, prosecutors are likely to rely heavily on the LACC’s findings of the family ties between the NEC boss and Tuma Enterprises, 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.

The LACC, in response to Cllr. Toe, defended its action and the indictment; had prayed Judge Carey to not dismiss the indictment, despite agreeing with the defendant's lawyer that the Ombudsman under the CoC should have been the first place where the investigation should have started. 

However, the LACC noted that the Ombudsman’s absence cannot be the reason for the LACC to remain silent and allow perpetrators who abuse public office to go free. The LACC had referenced Section 9.11 of the National Code of Conduct, titled: ‘Disclosure of Interest’ as the reason for investigating and indicting Mrs.Lansanah.

It reads: “Where Public Officials and Employees of Government have direct or indirect personal interests in a matter being examined, he or she shall inform the authorities of those interests and shall excuse himself or herself before deliberations are held and a vote or decision is taken.”

The LACC’s probe and criminal prosecution of the NEC chair came after the Daily Observer published investigative reports 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 training for by-election polling staff 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. During the Daily Observer investigation, the NEC chair declined to comment on the relationship when asked for a response and in court, she has said nothing about such a link. 

The leased equipment at the time cost not more than US$1,500 on; but NEC opted not to procure the equipment on its own, but entered a deal with Tuma Enterprises that resulted in a unit cost of US$9,166 to lease each of the twenty facial recognition systems from the company, for a total of US$183,320.  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. 

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.