Liberia: ‘Transacting with McGill, Others Risks Sanctions, Too’

Left,  McGill, Twehway, and Cephus.

... US Ambassador warns: "Unless an exception applies, any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of the individuals or entities could be subject to U.S. sanctions. "

The United States government has warned that it may sanction anyone caught violating the sanctions against three of President Geoge Weah’s former officials who were accused of alleged engagement in public corruption.

The warning, issued by the US Ambassador Michael McCarthy, comes as two of the three sanctioned former officials appear to be vying for Senatorial seats in the upcoming legislative elections in 2023 — attracting large amounts of political followers as a result of their ability to spend disproportionate amounts of cash on campaign-related projects. 

Nathaniel McGill, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, and Bill Twehway were sanctioned by the US government on August 15, “for public corruption in Liberia."  However, it is McGill, the former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and chief of staff to President George Weah; and Twehway, the former managing director of the National Port Authority (NPA), who are reportedly eyeing political seats in Margibi and Rivercess counties, respectively.

Unless an exception applies

According to McCarthy, the US government would not hesitate to impose sanctions on anyone caught engaging in “certain transactions” with the sanctioned individuals or subject to enforcement action.

“I also want to note that it was three months ago, almost to the day, that I announced to you in this room the Treasury Department’s Global Magnitsky sanctions of Nathaniel McGill, Bill Twehway, and Syrenius Cephus,”  McCarthy said yesterday at a press conference in the presence of the visiting US Acting Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs, Elizabeth Trudeau. 

“I think it’s important to draw our attention back to the Treasury Department’s statement, specifically its notification that persons that engage in certain transactions with these sanctioned individuals ‘may themselves be exposed to sanctions or subject to an enforcement action.”

“Unless an exception applies, any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of the individuals or entities could be subject to U.S. sanctions. This applies not only to those who transact with these three individuals but also with the other two individuals sanctioned under Global Magnitsky in recent years: Senator Prince Y. Johnson and Senator Varney Sherman [of Nimba and Grand Cape Mount Counties).”

Engaged in corrupt acts

The sanctions, according to the US Department of the Treasury, came after a rigorous inter-agency investigation, which determined that McGill, Cephus, and Twehway engaged in corrupt acts. 

Following the actions by the US, “all property and interests in property of the three individuals that are in the US or in the possession or control of US persons must be blocked and reported to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).”

In addition, persons who engage in certain transactions with the designated individuals risk also being exposed to sanctions or subject to enforcement action, the Treasury said. 

The sanctions come under the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the US government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US. The Treasury, in a statement, then said that McGill, during his time in government, “manipulated public procurement processes to award multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which he has ownership while making off-the-books payments in cash to senior government leaders, and organized warlords to threaten political rivals.

Cephus, according to the Treasury’s statement, received bribes from people in exchange for having their court cases dropped and has also shielded money launderers and helped clear them through the court system. 

Meanwhile, Twehway orchestrated the diversion of $1.5m in vessel storage fee funds from the NPA into a private account and formed a private company to which he later unilaterally awarded a contract for loading and unloading cargo at the Port of Buchanan, the Treasury Department said.

Twehway and others used family members to obfuscate their own involvement in the company, while still benefiting financially from the company, it added. The trio however denied the sanction allegations but were later forced to resign their respective government positions as their political authority in the government became a hindrance to President Weah’s relationship with Washington. 

They resigned after serving a protracted period under suspension, ordered by the president.  However, McGill and Cephus — two officials of the Weah government then deemed ‘untouchable,’ launched a campaign to discredit the US sanctions, demanding proof that they were involved in public corruption. 

They accused the US of violating their rights to due process, saying the sanctions claimed against them were untrue and  “innocent until proven guilty.” Interestingly, the President bought into their argument, as did some other government officials who continued to argue that those sanctioned be given the opportunity to be heard — indirectly questioning the US sanctions information and its claims.

Johnson and Sherman

As for the sanctions against Nimba County Senator Johnson — he was accused by the US government of engaging in large-scale corruption — a pay-for-play scheme with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment.

The sanction, which was announced in 2021, according to the US Treasury, was part of a scheme in which the senator, upon receiving funding from the “government of Liberia, the involved government ministries and organizations, laundered a portion of the funding for the return to the involved participants.”

Johnson, now a trusted political ally of Weah, was responsible for the slaying in 1990 of President Samuel Doe, who had been captured by his forces during the country’s 14-year civil war. Johnson sipped beer as he watched his men torture and mutilate Doe who begged in vain for mercy in a widely circulated video.

His colleague, Grand Cape Mount County Senator Sherman, was sanctioned in 2019 for allegedly paying judges to decide cases in his favor, as well as facilitating payments to Liberian politicians to support the impeachment of a judge who has ruled against him.   Sherman’s acts of bribery demonstrate a larger pattern of behavior to exercise influence over the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice, the US Treasury said.

It added that Sherman is “designated for being a foreign person who is a current or former government official responsible for or complicit in, or directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.”

Both men however denied the US government’s claims and requested proof, saying the ‘US sanction allegations were untrue. The US sanction however forced Johnson to resign his influential position as Chair of the Senate Committee on Defense and Security, while Sherman holds on to his position as Chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary. 

 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

Meanwhile, McCarthy has disclosed that all is now set for US President Joe Biden’s much anticipated U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — the first in eight years, scheduled for December. 

Along with other distinguished heads of state from across the continent, President Weah will represent the government and the people of Liberia in the interest of enhancing future collaboration between the United States and the entire African continent. 

“At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, we plan to build on our shared values to better foster new economic engagement; reinforce the U.S.-Africa commitment to democracy and human rights; mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and of future pandemics; work collaboratively to strengthen regional and global health; promote food security; advance peace and security; respond to the climate crisis; and amplify diaspora ties,” McCarthy said.

Editor's Note: We regret the prior inaccuracy in this post, which said that McGill was allegedly considering running for office in Lofa County rather than Margibi.