A Report cleverly crafted to merge bonuses and bribes to confuse the public
Former Justice Minister Christiana P. Tah has issued a statement detailing her role and the processes that went through the Exxon-Mobil Liberia Oil Deal and the deliberate selection of reports that she claims Global Witness cleverly crafted to merge with bonuses and bribes to confuse the general public. The following is her statement as sent to the Daily Observer yesterday:
Early one morning in mid-March 2018, I received a letter from an international watchdog organization called Global Witness, alleging that I had received a bribe to award a contract to Exxon Mobil (“Exxon”) for Liberian oil block #13. I then learned that a couple of other Liberian officials who participated in the negotiations had also received a similar letter. I was flabbergasted. “Bribery,” I murmured. Nothing could be more ludicrous. I found myself laughing out loud as I recalled what a friend used to say when we were in college: “Sometimes you have to take the most serious things in life with a sense of humor.”
Two weeks later, Global Witness released a Report entitled “Catch Me If You Can” in which the organization reaffirmed its allegations of bribery in spite of the fact that I had responded to their letter vehemently denying the allegation. As I began to read the Report, I quickly realized that there were a few critical misrepresentations of the facts. For instance, the assertion of Global Witness on page 18 of its report that the Minister of Justice and others gave assurances that the Peppercoast agreement was valid is false. If Global Witness had not acted with reckless disregard for the truth, it would have easily discovered that officials on the Hydrocarbon Technical Committee (HTC, a.k.a Negotiation Team) had to decide on whether the Peppercoast contract should be cancelled for breach or whether the Company should be divested of its rights in oil block #13 and be allowed to find its own buyer. The Ministry of Justice recommended cancellation of the contract and even suggested that NOCAL seeks a second opinion from an external counsel, which it did.
We began serious discussions with Exxon around mid-2012. The Exxon contract was the second oil contract I would help to negotiate for the Liberian Government. The first had been with Chevron 2011. These were not new contracts. Both Chevron and Exxon were buying interests in existing oil companies holding Liberian contracts. The problem with the existing oil contracts was that NOCAL had waived most of the benefits provided under the 2002 Petroleum Law for the Liberian people. For instance, although the Petroleum law provided for State Participation, Citizens’ Participation, and payment of Royalties, all of those benefits had been waived by previous officials in the production sharing contracts. Therefore, we saw it as our duty to renegotiate all of the existing oil contracts so that the Liberian people would enjoy the benefits intended by the drafters of the law.
We also persuaded Exxon to agree to a modification of the arbitration clause so that for the first time in our history anyone enforcing an arbitration award against Liberia would enforce only against the government entity with which it contracted. As it was at the time, if a foreign investor prevailed against the Government of Liberia in an arbitration proceeding, it could enforce its judgment against any assets of the Liberian Government, regardless of whether or not the entity was involved in the arbitration proceedings.
In a very complex, but not unusual, international business transactions arrangement, the Canadian Overseas Petroleum, Limited bought the assets from Peppercoast, which ExxonMobil, in turn, procured a majority interest.
Several weeks after the HTC concluded its work on the Exxon contract, I was in the President’s office on another matter when she intimated to me that she would instruct NOCAL to pay bonuses to all those who participated in the negotiation of the Exxon contract. “I am very pleased with the performance of the team”, she said. She went on to say that had we done the same work for the government as lawyers in private practice, we “would have made millions.” She did not give specific figures for bonuses, but that did not matter. What mattered to me was the fact that the President had acknowledged that we did a good job. It was not a good job just because Exxon had paid 50 million dollars at the signing of the contract. It was a good job because it was better than any other existing oil contract in the country. We had done our best.
So it should come as no surprise that President Sirleaf followed up on her statement to me by communicating her instructions to the Board of Directors chaired by her son, Robert A. Sirleaf. Therefore when the NOCAL Board passed a resolution to pay bonuses, it specifically referred to the “approval of the President of Liberia.” Either it was an intentional lie, or reckless disregard for the truth for Global Witness to have omitted any reference in its report to this very key document that was common knowledge to many, especially those with whom it communicated during its inquiry? Global Witness intentionally created a tabloid-style false story to draw publicity to its Report, by deliberately portraying a legal and ethical transaction as a criminal act. I have attached to this publication a copy of the referenced NOCAL Board Resolution.
When the CEO knew that a bonus would be forthcoming, he called an HTC meeting and asked if the Minister of Justice and the Legal Advisor to the President would advise on whether acceptance of the bonuses would violate the law. We spent an extensive amount of time in the room discussing the legality of the bonus because we were concerned about not breaking the law.
We discussed Article 90 (b) of the Liberian Constitution which states that “No person holding public office shall demand and receive any other prerequisites, emoluments or benefits, directly or indirectly, on account of a duty required by Government.” [Bold added for emphasis] Everyone in the room asserted, almost in unison, that they had not “demanded” anything for the negotiation of the Exxon contract. With that said, I advised the Chairman of the HTC that payment of bonuses to members of the HTC, under the circumstances, would not be a violation of the law. I did not speak to others who might have received bonuses, as the question posed to me specifically referred to members of the HTC.
A couple of weeks after that, I received a check of $35,000 and deposited it in the bank. I doubt whether there is anyone out there who accepts a bribe using a check. I doubt whether the worst crooks would accept a bribe of $35,000 to award an oil contract, which will potentially bring millions or billions at commercial production. What disturbs me most is the fact that Global Witness is not as interested in what happened to the rest of the 50 million dollars realized from the Exxon deal as it is in the less than $300,000 paid to the HTC in unsolicited bonuses for exceptional work on the contract.
So, how then did Global Witness determine that the 2007 bribery scandal alleging that officials asked to be paid to ratify an agreement is the same as the payments of unsolicited bonuses ordered by the President weeks after an agreement was concluded?
I understand that my successor in office and his Deputy were asked by NOCAL to submit a written opinion on whether the bonuses, as well as Board fees, paid to officials of the Liberian Government, violated the law. Neither one opined that there was any illegality in such payments. The position of these two officials was supported by a subsequent report from the General Auditing Commission asserting that it did not find anything untoward concerning the bonus payments.
Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has not yet come out publicly to confirm that she instructed the Board of Directors to pay out bonuses for work done on the Exxon contract. But when there was a public outcry in 2015 about the financial and managerial difficulties at NOCAL, she came out publicly and claimed responsibility.
When I saw the Global Witness Report, I did not think of myself as collateral damage to the Rex Tillerson story (Rex Tillerson is the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil and was also mentioned in the Global Witness Report). Instead, I saw this as a story designed to create the perception that I was also part of the corrupt organization that milked, plundered, and mismanaged the resources of Liberia. It is a cheap shot! The Liberian people know better.
As regards the Global Witness Report, it is not likely that it would alleviate corruption in Liberia. What it is likely to accomplish are the following: 1) Raise some funds for Global Witness; 2) Damage reputation of innocent people; and, 3) Create a diversion from the real problem of corruption in Liberia. The Report was cleverly crafted to merge the issues of bonuses and bribes to confuse the public, creating the perception that those who received unsolicited bonuses for doing a good job for Liberia are among the crooks who have ripped off the oil company.
Notwithstanding the sensational reports published by Global Witness over the past decade, corruption has continued to be a problem in Liberia. To fight corruption, we need partners who will not only expose the wrongdoers and further divide the country but also ensure that the country is prepared to follow up with proper investigation and prosecution. We need partners who will, in earnest, assist us with strengthening the social institutions in the country so that we can restore the values that underpin good governance.