Liberia: Senators Accuse of ‘Criminal Liability’ in Road Fund Saga


"It is clear that approving such a transaction after the fact is wrong and may make legislators who approved such an illegal act criminally liable tomorrow,” Sen. Karnga-Lawrence argued.

Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence has launched an extraordinary attack on the Senate, accusing her colleagues of being ‘criminally liable’ when they voted to approve the Minister of Finance's assertion that the legislature approved the redirection of funds, meant exclusively for the maintenance of roads, to other expenditure categories.

The  Grand Bassa County Senator, who has in the past accused the Senate of being compromised and lacking independence, said that her colleagues who voted to approve such assertion face the possibility of being held criminally on grounds that authorization for the redirection of funds can never be “verbal,” as such it does not qualify as legal authorization. 

“It is clear that approving such a transaction after the fact is wrong and may make legislators who approved such an illegal act criminally liable tomorrow,” argued Sen. Karnga-Lawrence who is also the head of the Senate Committee on Rules, Order, and Administration. “First of all, the Legislature does not give verbal authorization, neither does the President Pro-tempore of the Senate, nor the Speaker have such authority to do so, as such action when legal, must be taken by majority votes in plenary supported by a resolution signed by the majority. "

“Therefore, authorization for the redirection of funds was never given because 'verbal authorization' as claimed by the Minister of Finance does not qualify as legal authorization." 

The Senator added that while her fifteen colleagues had voted to endorse the Minister Samuel Tweah's action to divert US$25 million of US$50 million intended only for the road fund to settle other government obligations, the vote still does not legalize the process — and should revisit their actions knowing that the Minister flagrantly violate the law by arrogating “unto himself the authority of the legislature.” 

Karnga-Lawrence noted that part of the revision includes taking responsibility for this matter by calling on Tweah to give a complete report on the expenditures and “if the reports are proven to be correct, the Ministry must be instructed to replenish the road funds from the Government revenue in the next budget while the consequences of taking such unilateral actions are being considered.” 

“Please also be informed that acquiescence by some donors for the redirection of funds in the Road Fund does not legalize the process. Such actions must go through an operational process to legalize it — tabling of the request before the Plenary of both Houses and the subsequent signing of an appropriate resolution by a majority of the legislators.” the Senator argued. “We do not think that even those donors that, in principle, supported the redirection of some of the funds expected the Minister of Finance to flagrantly violate the law by arrogating unto himself the authority and responsibility that resides only in the legislature. “ 

Legislature Approves Tweah’s action

The Senate on June 20, voted in the majority to endorse its Public Accounts and Audits committee report to confirm the assertion made by Tweah, that he received a nod of approval from the Legislature to millions intended only for the road fund to settle government salary obligations.  This comes after the General Auditing Commission in an audit report revealed that the Liberia Revenue Authority collected US$53 million and of this amount, the Ministry of Finance remitted US$28 million to the Road Fund, leaving a difference of US$24 million which was not remitted.

And in the fiscal year 2019/2020, the GAC audit report said that the Ministry withheld the total amount of US$7 million from the petroleum levy fees collected to support the country’s budget, in contravention to Chapter 2.2 of the Act,  which states that  “All funds of the NRF shall be held in the Fund Account, from which disbursement shall be made solely to finance the approved annual road maintenance expenditure program and directly related costs as hereby required in this Act.”

But the Senate Public Accounts Committee report, which is the same as the House of Representatives Public Account Committee report, claimed that the Legislature re-appropriated the money; however, the report did not state whether any pertinent requirements under domestic laws, such as a joint resolution, were being signed to that effect.  Citing the National Budget fiscal outturns, the Senate likewise the House said that during the 2019/2020 budget, they reduced the Road Fund budgetary allotment from US$29 million in 2019/2020 to US$22.3 million, a variance of US$7 million, which the General Auditing Commission says is owed to the road fund. 

“The Senate Public Accounts Committee would like to inform the public that the (variance of) US$7 million as reported by the Auditor General as owed to the Road Fund was re-appropriated by the Legislature during [the] 2019/2020 recast budget to address critical national issues because of COVID. 

"The Legislature initially approved the amount in the FY 2019/2020 budget for the road fund. After the submission of a recast budget by the Executive due to low revenue collection as a result of COVID, the Legislature did a recast of the budget under review and reduced the Road Fund for the same period to $12 million. That the consultation and approval of the Minister of Finance was done with the Legislature during the recast budget process referred to above,” the Committee report said.

Tweah’s Justification

Minister Tweah, during an appearance on Spoon TV on May 24, noted that the decision to use the funds was made in consultation with the National Road Fund Steering Committee, which then consulted with the leadership of the Legislature and got approval through a meeting involving development partners.

“When you are faced with a crisis of that nature, you begin to look for ways to solve the crisis. We had a conversation with legislative leaders and development partners,” Tweah said. "In 2019/2020, there was re-appropriation by the National Legislature. "

"Technically, if there should be an issue, it’s on the US$7 million [that we used]. It is the government’s money and when the government faces challenges, it can decide on how to solve them. We have the minutes and all records to show that we did not act in isolation or against the law.  There was no written communication but there are records of the meeting held to approve the use of the money,” he said. “Fifteen development partners were in the meeting with us. There are notes and minutes to all the discussions and they are public documents.”

Tweah noted that the US$7 million taken from the road fund will not be refunded because, according to him, “it is not a debt.”

IMF, World Bank, and EU position 

Ahead of the Senate Committee report, the International Monetary Fund, European Union, and the World Bank acknowledged that they were and formed part of the discussion as claimed by Tweah. But they claimed that their consent was meant to be a one-time measure with approval from the relevant authorities, vis-à-vis the Legislature.  

“Please be advised that the Government discussed the issue with the World Bank and three other donors (Germany, the UK, and the EU),” a joint statement from the EU and World Bank revealed.  “It was done in the context of the Liberia South-Eastern Corridor Road Asset Management Project (SECRAMP), co-financed by the Government of Liberia using the NRF, the World Bank’s resources, the Liberia Reconstruction Trust Fund (LRTF) to which the three donors contribute, and the private sector.”  

While the statement did not indicate how much was agreed upon to be used by the government, the partners said they advised the relevant authorities to consult in the framework of legality. 

As for the IMF, it said that the government discussed the transfer of the US$7 million from the Road Fund to the FY 2019/2020 budget with development partners and that transfer was included in the 2019/2020 budget Act -- and “we defer to the authorities and Legislature to follow the pertinent requirements under domestic laws for effecting such transfers.” However, the US government said it never supported or approved alternative uses of revenue meant for the National Roads Fund,” an Embassy Spokesperson said in a statement to FrontPage Africa

“We deserve”

Meanwhile, Sen. Karnaga-Lawrence has called for additional investigation into the road funds collection process including the millions that are outstanding, particularly the status of the receivables that the GAC was unable to confirm during their audit.

The Senator added that while the illegal redirection of funds is of serious and urgent concern, the legislature must also be seized of the less than transparent process by which road maintenance contracts are awarded under the road fund. 

“We deserve a complete report that will delineate the procurement process followed for each contract awarded, the value of money achieved during the contract's execution, and the contractors' legal status including their beneficial owners."