Liberia: Sigh of Relief for Min. Samuel Tweah

The Minister of Finance, Samuel Tweah, left, and Justice Sie-A-Nyene Gyapay Yuoh

....  “We purged the contempt charge and you are now free and you can now go about your normal business,” Chief Justice Sie-A-Nyene Gyapay Yuoh said on behalf of her colleagues.

The Supreme Court has warned the Minister of Finance and Development Planning that he runs the risk of being punished harshly if the salaries of judges and justices, as well as judicial personnel, are delayed again under his watch.

The Court's warning comes as it has revoked Minister Samuel Tweah’s arrest and contempt orders and, among other things, accused him of hindering court operations and causing a constitutional crisis for the Judiciary.

Tweah sin, in the mind of the Chief Justice, Sie-A-Nyene Gyapay Yuoh, has to do with the withholding of their two months' salaries — covering the months of September and October — in violation of chapter six of the Judicial Canons, which required judges to be paid “adequately as they hold an exalted position preventing them from engaging in any business endeavors.” The other grave sin he committed before the court was to ignore the court’s order for him to appear and explain himself the salary delays.

“Minister Tweah, this is our last warning to you, But, if this is repeated, next time, we will take harsher punishment against you, according to the law,” the Chief Justice said to the Minister of Finance.  “We purged the contempt charge and you are now free and you can now go about your normal business.”

Yuoh’s purged the contempt charges against Tweah after he had issued an apology, saying he erred in withholding the funding of the judiciary as he blamed the decision on a recommendation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which he said was the basis of the Public Finance Management Act of 2009.

However, he did not provide any evidence to support his claim as his apology was enough to have the Court dismiss the contempt charge against him, but not without  a stern warning about unspecified future repercussions.

A source close to Tweah told the Daily Observer, on Nov. 7, just a day ahead of the purging of the contempt charges, that the matter “had been handled”, as it was a technical issue “and they weren’t going to leave the justices out.” The source said Tweah “respects the Supreme Court and does not wish to be in conflict with them as the government is working on paying salaries for October.”

The now-dismissed contempt proceeding against Tweah is of the many conflicts that have sparked between the Minister and the Judiciary since he spearheaded the implementation of the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019, which saw judges' salaries and allowances reduced.

The judges, however took an exception and filed a class- action lawsuit against the government at the at Civil Law Court ‘A’ in Montserrado, saying the harmonization of their salaries was “wrongful and illegal”, but also “discriminatory and unconstitutional.” 

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2021, was seeking the court’s approval to declare the Act unconstitutional and to hold the respondent liable for damages for the wrongful and illegal abolition and withholding of petitioners’ allowances.

However, the judges withdrew the lawsuit after the government claimed that their action was compliant with Article 72(a) of the Constitution, which forbids reducing judges’ allowances and perks “unless under a national program established by the Legislature,” as it did in 2019. 

The harmonization then ended judges’ monthly compensation of L$22,950 in taxable pay and US$5,000 in non-taxable pay, which came as an allowance. The amount of gasoline subsidies each month was reduced from 350 gallons to 135 gallons.  Judges, as it stands, are now paid a taxable salary of US$5,000 per month with no allowance benefits, as a result of the 2019 harmonization process. Supreme Court justices receive a higher income than judges and magistrates.

However, while responding to the contempt charges, Tweah said that he thought the judiciary branch was inclusive of the implementation of the PFM Act of 2009, admitting that he erred in that process and will have it corrected, in reference to the law… “Going forward, there would not be a reoccurrence of the error,” he pledged.

“I am sorry, but I will meet with the IMF and other partners that had advised us on the PFM, to inform them that the judiciary is an exemption to the PFM Act.”

Tweah, however, accepted to make the necessary correction, when he was informed by the Supreme Court Justices that by the law, the judiciary is exempted from the PFM Act.

According to Tweah, the IMF took the decision after the government, through the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), could not account for US$23,000 that the IMF placed in the bank’s vault for reserve purposes.

“Your Honors, a staffer of the CBL mistakenly transferred into the government revenue account the amount of US$23,000 that the IMF placed there as its reserve, instead of the IMF reserve account,” Tweah said while justifying the delay in paying salaries of judiciary officials and workers. “Right now, we have released the checks for September and the [checks for] October will be released before the end of this week.”

When asked by the justices as to whether he is aware of the Judicial Canons that prohibited them and judges from engaging into any other profiteering businesses, other than their salaries, Tweah replied in the negative.

The Judicial Canons particularly chapter six title: GOVERNMENT PAID OFFICIAL provides,

“The judge is a government-paid official and must be paid adequately; he holds an exalted position which prevents him from engaging in any business pursuit, therefore he must be provided with the necessities of life and with every means by which he will be able to perform his judicial duties effectively, efficiently, and speedily. The judge must be encouraged and given the incentive to live a decent and dignified life that would prevent financial and domestic worries and enable him to repel temptation, which is susceptible to human life. As the priest of justice, a judge should not be given the cause to be corrupted in the performance of his judicial duties so as to be justified for any disciplinary action taken against him if found deficient in those qualities.”