An American lawyer Stephen M. Schneebaum, on Tuesday, June 9, confirmed that he has been hired by the Government of Liberia to ensure the extradition of Ellen Corkrum and Melvin Johnson back to the country.
Corkrum and Johnson are accused of economic sabotage, theft of property, criminal conspiracy, and misapplication of entrusted property.
The charges, says Schneebaum, are violations of express provisions of the Liberian Criminal Code.
In a telephone interview with Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown, Schneebaum further explained that “My task is to ensure that the extradition request is factually accurate and consistent with the laws of the United States, including the 1939 treaty between the two countries.”
Assuming that the U.S. Justice Department decides to proceed with the extradition, the US-trained lawyer pleged his committment to accomplishing the task: “I will work with the Department to expedite the proceedings, and to represent the interests of the Government of Liberia with the appropriate United States Attorneys and federal courts.”
In addition, Schneebaum said, “I have been asked to research the question whether the participation of Mr. Johnson in the activities alleged in the indictment would give rise to issues related to his status as an attorney in the United States.”
In that connection, the Government of Liberia's legal representative further disclosed that “on behalf of the Government of Liberia and the Liberia Airport Authority, I filed a grievance against Mr. Johnson with the Georgia State Bar on May 29. I believe that the complaint will be investigated by the appropriate authorities.”
Giving further details about the complaint filed against Mr. Johnson to the Georgia State Bar, Schneebaum stated that “Mr. Johnson’s involvement in the crimes alleged by the grand jury is a violation of the applicable codes of professional conduct for a lawyer to engage in fraudulent or deceitful conduct.”
He further alleged that there is evidence that Mr. Johnson was involved in the clandestine taping of conversations with Liberian Government ministers and other officials.
“Such recording of a person without his or her permission is a criminal offense in Liberia, just as it is in many states of the United States,” the lawyer clarified.
He went on to say that Mr. Johnson also received Government’s money for rendering professional legal advice, while not being qualified as a Member of the Bar of Liberia.
“In our view, this constitutes the unauthorized practice of law, which is illegal. The investigation of these allegations may lead to discipline, including disbarment,” he noted.
Responding to questions as to whether the alleged crimes were political in nature, the American lawyer replied, “Absolutely not. The crimes of which Ms. Corkrum and Mr. Johnson are accused have to do with the diversion of public property of the Government and citizens of Liberia into their own hands and the hands of their friends.”
Schneebaum said the Government of Liberia filed the extradition request with the U.S. Department of Justice last year (2013).
The Justice Department, he added, has asked for a great deal of additional information, of which some has been and the rest is being provided. He expressed the hope that the submission will be in final form within the next two or three weeks.
“If the Department of Justice decides to proceed with the request for indictment, the file will be sent to the United States Attorneys (chief federal prosecutors) for the two judicial districts in which the defendants reside (in this case, the District of Massachusetts in the case of Ms. Corkrum, and the Northern District of Georgia for Mr. Johnson),” he stated.
He added that the formal proceedings will be opened in both federal district courts, in which the U.S. Attorney will represent the Government of Liberia in prosecuting the extradition.
“This process is time-consuming,” he clarified.
Also reacting to suggestions recently made by Mr. Johnson that extraditions are completed in one month or less has no basis in fact, the lawyer said, “It should be noted that a person is extradited to permit the requesting state (in this case Liberia) to determine whether he or she is guilty as charged.”
This means that, he further noted “if they are extradited by the United States, Ms. Corkrum and Mr. Johnson will be tried before a jury in criminal proceedings. But the extradition process itself is civil, not criminal.”
“It will not be necessary for the Government of Liberia to prove to a U.S. judge beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Corkrum and/or Mr. Johnson broke Liberian law.”
Responding to whether Ms. Corkrum and Mr. Johnson are whistle-blowers who discovered corruption in the Johnson Sirleaf administration and are now being punished for it, Schneebaum said, “This suggestion is nonsense. This is certainly not the first time – nor will it be the last – that a person caught having committed a crime tries to make himself or herself out to be someone interested in trying to root out or to prevent that very kind of criminal activity.”
He noted that Liberian public procurement is subject to certain kinds of controls to prevent the unauthorized diversion of what belongs to the Liberian people.
“Those controls may seem complex and bureaucratic at times, just as similar controls sometimes cumbersome seem in Washington or Brussels or Tokyo.”
He alleged that “What Ms. Corkrum did as Managing Director of the LAA – making financial commitments to friends without getting approval, without having contracts vetted, and without any kind of scrutiny of the qualifications of the proposed contractors – is a perfect illustration of why those regulations are in place and why it is important that they be observed.”
Ms. Corkrum is not a crusader who discovered corruption and reported it: according to the grand jury, she was engaged in corruption.
Commenting on Corkrum and Johnson's careers in the United States, he said, “It appears that Ms. Corkrum has attended very prestigious educational institutions in the U.S., and has served with different branches of the U.S. military. Mr. Johnson is a lawyer and was, until his recent dismissal, a municipal court judge in Georgia.”
But the grand jury was not tasked with judging them as people, or with looking at their accomplishments in life.
“It was asked to decide whether there was probable cause that they committed certain crimes. And the grand jury, based on the evidence, answered that question in the affirmative,” he argued.
Asked whether the tapes of conversations with high Liberian government officials show a pattern of corruption, Schneebaum replied, “They do not. But before answering that question further, let me repeat that in Liberia, as in many States in the U.S., it is illegal to tape a conversation without the consent of the person being recorded, the taping that Ms. Corkrum and Mr. Johnson claim that they carried out is a criminal act,” adding “there is no evidence of corruption on the tapes. What the tapes do reveal is an effort to be sympathetic, supportive, and understanding toward a colleague who is being investigated by legal authorities. This is a completely natural response.”
He continued that “There is no suggestion on the tapes that anyone has been offered illegal compensation, or that any senior figure in the Johnson Sirleaf administration has engaged in, or has personal knowledge of, corruption.”
Commenting on the Government of Liberia's importance to the case, the country's legal expert said, “It is no secret that the Government had held great hope in the possibility that Ellen Corkrum would be part of the revival of the Liberian state. The President herself invested in this relationship, believing that an accomplished daughter of Liberia could be part of the effort to which this administration is committed. It is unfortunate that events made clear that these hopes were to be dashed. However, maintaining the rule of law is more important than personal loyalty.”
The Government and the President take no pleasure in this prosecution, the GoL's attorney said. “But it is necessary to demonstrate the principle for which this administration stands: no one is above the law, and everyone is required to share a commitment to respecting the law. Liberia’s recent history shows all too well what happens when that commitment is dishonored,” he said.
Asked where does Government want the case to end, Schneebaum stated that “Government has faith in the independence and the wisdom of its judicial system and officers. It wants nothing more than for justice to be done: Ellen Corkrum and Melvin Johnson should be returned to Liberia to stand trial on the charges brought against them. The State will present evidence of their guilt, and they and their lawyers will present a defense. The Government of Liberia believes that the adversarial process will lead to a just outcome.”
Asked whether the trial is about personal feelings or legal case, Schneebaum replied, “This case is about the law, and the application of the law to the facts. These two individuals are accused of serious crimes which, were they emulated and were they to go unpunished, would set a tone inconsistent with the spirit and commitment of the Johnson Sirleaf administration.”
“The Government of Liberia is a government of laws, not of people. The ability of such a commitment to survive is the central issue of this prosecution,” he noted.
Schneebaum is a graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities and an international lawyer, practicing law in Washington for more than 35 years.
He holds three masters’ degrees — two in Law and another in Philosophy.
He taught international legal topics at Catholic, American, George Washington, Cornell, and Oxford Universities, and has been on the adjunct faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, since 1990.
He said that he had followed political and legal developments in Liberia since the mid-1980s. In 1986, he participated in an international delegation of observers attending the trial in Monrovia of James Holder and Robert Philips for treason. "I have known Her Excellency since those years," Schneebaum said.
A grand jury in Liberia returned three counts against Ms. Corkrum, and one against Mr. Johnson.
In the first count, it is alleged that Ms. Corkrum retained a consulting firm owned and run by a friend of hers to do emergency work at Roberts International Airport. The firm – Diaspora Consulting LLP – was retained without following any of the proper procedures for public procurements in Liberia, and without disclosure even to the Board of the LAA itself. And Ms. Corkrum apparently, and again without authority, made a commitment to pay Diaspora many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There is no evidence that Diaspora ever made any constructive contribution to the desperately needed repairs to Roberts Field. Indeed, the necessary work was ultimately done by NACO, a Dutch company, at a price far below the one apparently agreed between Ms. Corkrum and her friend.
In the second count, the grand jury alleges that Ms. Corkrum and Mr. Johnson together arranged for LAA funds to be transferred to him for work in connection with the security system at RIA.
There is no evidence that Mr. Johnson was qualified to do that kind of work, or that he ever actually performed it. Moreover, there is again no paper trail, and no record of compliance with the laws and regulations in Liberia that are in place to deter corruption and the unaccountable misuse of public funds.
Finally, the third count outlines a scheme by which Ms. Corkrum received cash from the LAA Board to purchase electronic equipment that she ultimately did not deliver to its intended (and approved) recipients.