-Calls on Weah’s Administration to investigate those ‘involved’
A new Global Witness investigation released on Thursday, March 29, shows that Exxon’s 2013 purchase of Liberia’s Block 13 oil license more likely than not, enriched former government officials, who may have illegally owned the block.
The National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) also made unusual, large payments to senior government officials who authorized the 2013 deal, Global Witness said in a report entitled, “Catch Me If You Can.“
Meanwhile, Global Witness’ Senior Campaigner, Jonathan Gant, has called on the Liberian government to investigate those allegedly involved in Exxon’s 2013 oil deal for corruption or wrongdoing.
Gant also disclosed that Global Witness has seen evidence that shortly following the authorization of the 2013 Exxon deal, some senior Liberian officials were paid “bonuses” of US$35,000 by NOCAL, which more than doubled their annual salaries.
“These officials, and the positions they held at the time, were NOCAL’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Randolph McClain, National Investment Chairman, Natty Davis, Finance Minister Amara M. Konneh, Lands, Mines and Energy Minister Patrick Sendolo, , Justice Minister Christiana Tah and NOCAL’s Board Chair, Robert Sirleaf, who is the son of ex-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” Gant added.
“Robert Sirleaf was reportedly working pro-bono (free-of-charge) at the time. However, he too received a payment of US$35,000,” the report indicated.
Gant said the evidence shows that these payments were associated with the Exxon deal and that the payments were probably made from the same bank account into which Exxon had recently deposited part of its bonus to NOCAL’s account, although there is no evidence that Exxon knew about the deposit.
“All officials have denied that these payments were bribes, stating that they were authorized by NOCAL’s Board of Directors as bonuses for negotiating a good deal with Exxon,” the Gant report said.
Block 13 was originally awarded by NOCAL in 2005 to Liberian-Anglo company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP). But in 2007, the block was ratified by the Liberian legislature through bribery.
“But Global Witness’ evidence shows that the company was likely part-owned by former Lands, Mines and Energy Minister, Jonathan Mason, and former Deputy Minister, Mulbah Willie. Mason and Willie are suspected of granting the oil block to a company in which they held interests while they were also ministers in 2005, which was illegal under Liberian law,” Gant said.
According to him, Exxon knew that Block 13 was originally awarded through bribery and that its purchase of the oil block could enrich former officials who might have been behind BCP.
“In a PowerPoint presentation obtained by Global Witness, Exxon wrote that it was interested in purchasing the oil block despite its “concerns over issues regarding US anti-corruption laws,” Gant said.
Undeterred by the corruption red flags, Exxon went ahead with the deal anyway. Global Witness’ evidence shows that it structured the transaction in a way to skirt US anti-corruption laws by using a Canadian company – Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited (COPL)– as a go-between to buy the block.
“It is appalling that an oil giant like Exxon would buy up an oil block they knew was tainted by corruption,” said Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness. “This kind of morally dubious corporate behavior is particularly shocking in a country like Liberia where endemic corruption continues to rob people of opportunities,” the report added.
He said if Mason did own BCP shares when Exxon bought Block 13, he would have received a share of the US$68.5 million Exxon paid BCP. Willie died in 2012, so any money he was owed would likely have gone to his estate.
Gant also noted that there is also evidence that Adolph Lawrence, who became a representative in 2012, held a BCP ownership interest in 2011. If Lawrence continued to hold this interest when Exxon bought it in 2013, he also would have broken the law and may have received part of the money Exxon paid BCP.
He disclosed that Exxon has not responded to Global Witness’ request for comment.
“COPL has responded, saying its due diligence showed that there were no legal problems with the deal, that Mason did not hold shares in BCP; shareholders certified held no interest for others, and that it received legal advice on its anti-corruption and anti-money laundering obligations,” he said.
The company stated that Lawrence resigned from a job he held with BCP in 2011 and that any money he received was reported to the Liberian Government.
“Liberia’s attempts to stop corruption have failed–most notably the Sable Mining bribery debacle,” said Gant. It is time for President George Weah to show that he is a reformer and task the Ministry of Justice and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate immediately.”
Unusual and large payments to Liberian officials in 2013
According to Gant, Global Witness’ Exxon investigation was made possible by information published by the Liberian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), an independent agency that publishes annual reports of payments made by companies to the government. Without this information, Global Witness would not have started researching Exxon’s 2013 deal.
“Our investigation shows not only that Liberia’s oil sector was corrupt, but also how important LEITI is for the country,” said Gant. “The latest news that President Weah has illegally fired LEITI’s Secretariat Head Konah Karmo is alarming and may show a weakening of political will to tackle corruption,” the report added.
Gant however called on the Liberian government to immediately reinstate Karmo, to ensure LEITI’s independence is preserved. Liberian authorities should also investigate Exxon’s 2013 deal, to see if Exxon or any Liberian broke the law.
Former Justice Minister Christiana Tah Reacts
Meanwhile, former Justice Minister Christiana Tah, reacting to the Global Witness report, has dismissed any suggestions whatsoever, that she received bribes from Exxon-Mobil following consummation of the agreement with the Liberian government.
However in his letter of concern to the former Justice Minister, Global Witness, Jonathan Gant noted that in May 2013, NOCAL paid her a sum of US$35,000 which it labelled as bonus because, according to Gant, the Justice Minister was a member of the Liberian Government’s Hydrocarbon Technical Committee (HTC). It is this committee which has the mandate to approve and award Liberian oil licenses.
Gant further noted that all of the payments made by NOCAL as bonuses were made within two months of this approval by the HTC. Continuing he said, based on available evidence, Global Witness did observe that except for annual bonuses which NOCAL paid to staff shortly before Christmas, NOCAL did not pay equivalent bonuses in many years surrounding the sale of oil block 13.
Moreover, he said it was around the same time (May 2013) that NOCAL received an amount of US$5 million from Exxon out of which 80 percent was an entirely voluntary payment. And it it for this reason, according to Gant that Global Witness believed that the US$35,000 allegedly paid to the Justice Minister was in fact a bribe to ensure the successful conclusion of the oil deal involving the sale of Block 13.
Although Minister Tah vehemently rejected insinuations that she was paid a bribe, she however did admit that NOCAL paid bonuses to all those involved in the negotiations of the oil deal for their excellent performance, noting that even drivers were awarded bonuses. But she said the bonuses were paid long after the matter had been concluded though she did not disclose how long after.
“Bonus payments were authorized by NOCAL’s Board of Directors to all NOCAL Staff and others who performed exceptionally in conducting the negotiations on the Exxon Contract. These bonus payments were made long after the Exxon deal was concluded. I understand that even drivers received bonuses. Do you mean to tell me that Exxon was so desperate that it even bribed the drivers”, Tah questioned.
“I did not receive money or an offer to pay money from Exxon-Mobil for the award of the oil contract related to Block #13; neither am I aware of anyone who may have requested or received a bribe from the aforesaid company, directly or indirectly. The suggestion that there was a “quid pro quo” link between entering into the contract and the payments, by using the term “bribe,” is malicious, and appears to be deliberate and purposeful”.
But a well informed source(name withheld) has told the Daily Observer that it is more likely than not that members of the HTC did in fact receive some financial remunerations, however indirectly from Exxon. She said most negotiations concerning the oil deal were done in the United States of America where all expenses of members of the HTC, including air tickets, lodging, feeding and allowances were fully paid by Exxon.
She said Exxon being fully aware of the implications of paying bribes for contracts did so but through third parties. She further said that oil Block 13 had originally been bought by what she called a Nigerian 419 company called Oando (Oranto). Oranto, according to her, had been awarded the oil block through a fraudulent arrangements involving top government officials.
Because Oranto allegedly did not have the money to develop the oil block, according to our source, she decided to sell it to the Liberian government who, under the arrangement, had first buyer preference. And because the Liberian government did not have the money to repurchase the oil Block 13 from Oranto, she (GOL) agreed to have Oranto sell it to Exxon who bought it following conclusions with NOCAL.
Under such arrangements according to our source, bribes,etc, can be easily hidden and paid in the form of bonuses etc. And as Global Witness pointed out, 80 percent of the US$5 million paid to NOCAL was entirely voluntary, meaning in effect, that US$4 million was the actual amount paid in bribes to top Government officials including legislators, our source pointed out, noting that a paltry US$1 million redounded to the Government of Liberia.
Meanwhile, save former Justice Minister Tah, none of the other officials named in the report have responded to the allegations by Global Witness. At this point it is not clear whether former Justice Minister Tah is going to pursue legal action, however the tone of her letter of response does provide some indications that she is more likely than not, to file legal proceedings against Global Witness for defamation of character.
“I advise that you consult with your counsel on the legal ramifications of malice i.n publishing defamatory’ statements. I will not sit by and allow you to defame my good name”, she concluded in her response.