Liberia: Senate Finds Min. Cooper ‘Guilty’ for ‘Noncompliance...’

Agriculture Minister Madam Jeanine M. Cooper.

The Plenary of the Liberian Senate through a vote of ten for, two against, and five abstentions, yesterday found Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper “guilty” on counts of “noncompliance and gross disrespect” to the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The Senate decision was taken during the 11th day sitting of the Special Session based on a motion proffered by Bong County Senator, Prince K. Moye.

As a means of according Minister Cooper due process, she appeared with her lawyer, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Cllr. Gloria Musu Scott. Also present at yesterday’s hearing was former Foreign Minister Olubanke King Akerele, in apparent solidarity with Minister Cooper.

Following an extensive contempt hearing and with a guilty verdict, Plenary mandated that the Agriculture Minister remain under oath and reappear on Thursday, December 2, 2021, at 11:30 a.m., to be sentenced in accordance with Article 44 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia.

Article 44 states: “Contempt of the Legislature shall consist of actions which obstruct the legislative functions or which obstruct or impede members or officers of the Legislature in the discharge of legislative duties and may be punished by the House concerned by reasonable sanctions after a hearing consistent with due process of law. No sanction shall extend beyond the session of the Legislature wherein it is imposed, and any sanction imposed shall conform to the provisions on Fundamental Rights laid down in this Constitution. Disputes between legislators and non-members which are properly cognizable in the courts shall not be entertained or heard in the Legislature”.

In her testimony, Minister Cooper informed the Senate that she was misled by her Deputy Minister for Technical Services, Robert Kerkulah Fagans, who was acting as Minister while she was abroad on an official trip.

In what appeared as a surprise to some Senators, Minister Cooper offered an apology for the second time to the Plenary and took responsibility for every action leading to the noncompliance posture to the Committee, and at the same time promised to open a new chapter of cordial working relationship with the Committee and the Legislature as a whole.    

In reply to the Minister’s testimony, the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Margibi County Senator Jim Tornonlah, told the Plenary of the Senate that the Committee made countless efforts to cite the Minister or her Deputies before the Committee to brief on happenings in the agriculture sector for possible interventions, but all efforts were fruitless, thereby impeding the work of the Committee. 

It can be recalled that the Agriculture Minister was once brought before the August Body for what was construed as a non-cooperative attitude exhibited, for which she apologized and pleaded for mercy. 

Appearing before the plenary of the Senate for contempt of the Legislature last week Tuesday, November 23, Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper invoked her right to legal counsel, after she was reminded of her right to one by Senate Pro Tempore Albert Tugbe Chie.

Minister Cooper was summoned before the Senate to answer several charges of non-compliance by the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries, and her failures to honor Senate’s citations.

Responding to Pro-Temp Chie’s reminder when she appeared before the Senate, Minister Cooper said: “I will like to consult with counsel, so I beg for a postponement where the issues can be adequately responded to; I have responded once from my heart, and since this is a legal proceeding, the second one that I have been treated to this year; the second of two times that I have come here to the plenary of the Senate, I will like to have the services of legal counsel with me when I come to respond to these charges.”

In an earlier reply to the Senate citation contained in a communication dated October 22, 2021, Minister Cooper reminded the Senate plenary of how diligent she has been in doing everything humanly possible to appear and answer questions from the Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries in fulfillment of her duties whenever she is in the country.

She noted in her letter that she has attended twelve official citations and numerous informal meetings; “an estimated 53 hours and 50 minutes spent in the Senate Chambers and in meetings with Senators; [and] many more hours preparing for the meetings.”

Minister Cooper recalled that while she was in New York (USA) for ten days in September, she participated in three different virtual meetings with Senators and the National Investment Commission, and the National Bureau of Concessions.

 “And you will surely remember that the MOA has supplied more than 2,000 pages of information in response to the Senate’s requests for information, some of it as recently as this week,” she said in the October 22 communication.

Madam Cooper also recalled that since her confirmation, she or her deputies have faithfully represented the MOA before the Senate committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Labor, Education, Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims, and Petitions; Ways, Means, Finance and Budget; Concessions and Investments or in the plenary on twelve separate occasions. 

“This very week, my Deputies have been in meetings with the Grand Kru Legislative Caucus and we spent several hours addressing their concerns on the SAPEC project. Last week, I spent two hours discussing with investors in the office of the Montserrado County Senator and his Colleague.”

Minister Cooper regretted that the Senate has repeatedly asked her ministry to comment on funds that have not yet even been disbursed into the MOA’s operational accounts, namely the US$16 million in the Liberian Commercialization and Agribusiness Fund which, she noted, remains bogged down in establishment procedures; “and that will eventually be disbursed only on the authorization of a National Fund Advisory Committee, as per our contract with the World Bank.”

Giving reasons for her inability to attend the citation, Minister Cooper noted that on October 24, she had to form a part of the advance team of President George Manneh Weah’s Presidential delegation to the Conference of Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) to be held in Glasgow, Scotland.

“In my capacity as National Chair of the Carbon Consultative Committee, I will be taking part in the pre-Summit negotiations of the African countries beginning on the 26th of October, and will be supporting his Excellency the President’s championing of climate finance for Liberia through to the end of the Summit on November 12, 2021,” Minister Cooper noted.

Concluding, Minister Cooper informed the Senate that “given the imminence of my travel and the time needed to prepare myself to fully address the concerns of the honorable Senate, I respectfully propose that the appearance be rescheduled by mid-November, at your convenience. I will be more than then to respond robustly to the charges and lay to rest the narrative of non-cooperation.”

Reacting angrily to her letter, some Senators accused Minister Cooper of showing a high degree of arrogance, which was viewed as an affront to the Senate. 

But on a legal soft note, Senator H. Varney Sherman admonished his colleagues that, as the accuser and also judge, “we should not prejudge the accused.”

Others agreed that the Senate would await the return of the Minister and cite her on the same non-compliance charges, for which she was found guilty on November 30.