-Integrity and good governance take center stage
The two leading candidates for the Montserrado County senatorial seat, the hottest contested of all the 15 seats in the upcoming December 8 elections, went fiercely at each other in a public debate organized by the Liberia Media Development Initiative (LMDI), a local NGO, on Friday, November 27. During the debate, the two candidates were provided opportunities to elaborate on their platforms and what they have done so far for the people they want to represent in the Senate.
The incumbent, Abraham Darius Dillon of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), who got a resounding mandate in July 2019 from the people of the nation’s most populous county, and his prime challenger, Rep. Thomas P. Fallah of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), were out to convince the electorates as to why either of them should be considered for the seat.
The moderators of the debate questioned the candidates on trending issues including the unending wave of insecurity in the county, recent mysterious deaths and armed robbery, and the ever-increasing sexual and gender-based violence against women, among others.
Other topics included the increase in drug and substance abuse in Montserrado County; the legal and feasibility issues around the pending referendum, as well as the ailing economy, and the candidates’ 90 days deliverables.
The most striking point of the debate came when the issues of accountability in the management of Montserrado County development funds were raised. Throughout the debate, the incumbent Senator dwelt on the issue of integrity in public service — with emphasis on reports of past and present Lawmakers of the county setting up schools or institutions of learning to funnel county funds surreptitiously.
In one such instance, Sen. Dillon cited a 2014 GAC audit report highlighting disbursement of funds to Rep. Thomas Fallah and other lawmakers of Montserrado as a result of the inability of the county administration and the Project Management Committee (PMC) to properly account for the County Development Fund (CDF) and the Social Development Fund (SDF).
The irregularities highlighted the disbursement of scholarship funds to educational institutions within District #5, owned by Rep. Thomas Fallah, as well as other schools in various districts, also owned by their respective lawmakers.
According to the audit report, the disbursement of funds did not meet the guidelines in place, including the Public Financial Management (PFM) law.
Representative Fallah was captured in the 2012-2014 audit report for having received more than the actual amount allocated to each district for scholarships.
The report named Thomas Fallah, Saah Joseph, Richmond Anderson and William Dakel as lawmakers who received money for students in the various institutions they own, namely: Smythe Institute (Rep. Richmond Anderson), Dave Workshop School (Rep. Saah Joseph), William Dakel Institute (Rep. William Dakel), Thomas Fallah Computer Institute (Rep. Thomas Fallah), Thomas Fallah Vocational institute (Rep. Thomas Fallah).
On this basis, Senator Dillon asked Rep. Fallah whether he has “ever diverted county development money to your privately-owned T-FIVE Academy before” — a question to which the CDC candidate responded in the negative, noting that he is a man of clear character who has never been found or caught in acts of fraud.
“Let me help you,” Dillon noted. “Do you remember these financial documents from the Ministry of Internal Affairs giving you US$20,000 that you collected in the name of T-FIVE School?”
In response, Rep. Fallah noted, “You come to bring document here? Dillon, you are very limited and naive. There is no way I can use county Development Funds without passing through the proper channel. There are procedures that must be followed in order to get the money. And that money benefitted 400 students in my district.
Fallah also declared that he has not been caught in any financial impropriety and no anti-graft institution has caught him in corruption act.
Not content with the response, Dillon asserted that the fact that the money was allotted to a school that belongs to the Lawmaker was a conflict of interest — and that, the impression given the students that they were beneficiaries of scholarships directly from Rep. Fallah, although funds allotted for the students came from central government, equate such act on the part of the CDC strongman to corruption.
“That is stealing,” Dillon stressed. “How will you have students in your school, put them under the impression that you are helping them with ‘scholarship’ from your personal pockets, and then go behind them to collect ‘school fees’ in their name from county development money? This is not only a crime, but it is also a conflict of interest.”
As a man who dubbed himself as a “Positive Disruptor,” Senator Dillon said he is seeking reelection to continue being the “light” at the Senate.
Senator Dillon said he wants to bring reforms to a Senate that has been dogged by corruption through the taking of “Brown envelopes” — used to coerce members to act against the will of the people.
“The Legislature is a place for check and balance and constructive engagement, not a place to succumb to everything. The Legislature, especially the Liberian Senate, is where the last vetting committee of the Republic is and so people who take a seat in the Senate must be people who have the courage to say ‘Yes’ when they have to, and no when ‘No.’
“Our platform is to ensure that system works. Our platform is to ensure that system works so that the people, the citizens, can benefit from the country and the resources of the country through the system only because they’re citizens, not because of whose feet they are kissing or which political party they are affiliating with,” he said.
Upon his reelection, Senator intends to begin from where he stopped in his first 90 days in office and that, in addition to his already existing bill calling for the reduction of the salary of lawmakers, he would work to ensure more reforms at the Liberian legislature.
For his part, Rep. Fallah noted that the allotted time was inadequate for him to fully disclose his platform to the electorates, though he insinuated that he is the “most qualified” of all the candidates seeking the position.
“I’m coming into this business with a wealth of experience owing to the fact that I’m one of the longest-serving lawmakers at the national legislature,” he said.
“As a guru in this business, I have come to help my colleagues to understand the fourth component which we call the social contract to the people, you the electorates, because we have come here today in the solicitation of your votes and, if we should enjoy that confidence a few days from now, we owe it to you as the electorates,” he said.
On the issue of accountability in management, Rep. Fallah spoke specifically of the CDF, which he noted has guidelines on how the fund should be disbursed and used. Therefore, any lawmaker that is found liable for misusing said fund would be held responsible by anti-graft institutions.
“We will add more teeth to these institutions [and] to those laws to make sure they hold public officials’ feet to the fire,” he said.
He could not be poignant on how he could help to fight graft in government but rather noted, “As a lawmaker, our duty is not to execute, our duty is to put policies into perspective. So, I as a Senator will add more teeth to enforce those laws that we have.”