— Richard Tolbert, former NIC chair, describes US$950K trial on Global Witness
No sooner had the Criminal Court ‘C’ at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia acquitted Dr. Richard V. Tolbert on Monday, July 29, 2019 in the US$950,000 Global Witness bribery case, Dr. Tolbert, former chairman of the National Investment Commission (NIC), says the charges against him were “political witch-hunt, in which I was used as mere collateral damage.”
Tolbert was among several current and past public officials that included Senator Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County, and Speaker Alex Tyler of Bomi County, former Lands and Mines Minister Eugene Shannon, former Minister of State Morris Saytumah, and Professor Willie Belleh of the Public Procurement and Concession Committee, who were accused of bribery and economic sabotage in one of the biggest corruption cases in the country’s recent history.
They were charged in connection with the alleged insertion of Section 75 of the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) 2010 to declare the Wologizi Mountain in Lofa County as a non-bidding area to give Sable Mining, a mining company based in the United Kingdom (UK), the upper hand to acquire the concession area as claimed in the Global Witness report of 2016.
The report alleged that Sherman and Sable Mining executives made a donation of US$20,000 to Dr. Tolbert, who was then president of the Invincible Eleven (IE) Football Club, as a means to induce him to have the PPCC 2010 Act changed at the legislature.
Again, the report claimed that Sherman presented US$50,000 as consulting fees to Mr. Tolbert to help change the law.
The report alleged that others, including Fombah Sirleaf, son of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and then head of National Security Agency (NSA) also benefited from Sable’s largesse. In addition to Fombah Sirleaf, the Global Witness Report also alleged that Cletus Wotorson, former Unity Party (UP) stalwart, and President Pro Tempore, as well as Henry Fahnbulleh, a senior executive of UP, also received monies from Sable and Cllr. Sherman. And it was alleged that the ruling UP itself received $200,000 at its convention in 2016 from Sable and Cllr. Sherman. But none of those people or institutions were prosecuted.
“Why this selective Justice?” Tolbert wondered, insisting that he did not believe that any of the accused were guilty of any crime either.
Mr. Tolbert, who spoke about the US$20,000 shortly after he was acquitted, said that on May 1, 2010, Cllr. Sherman presented two International Bank (IB) checks in the amount US$10,000 each to the IE Football Club through him (Tolbert), during a public funding-raising rally at the Monrovia City Hall. He said that the club did not invite Sable Mining to the fund-raising rally.
“There were hundreds of people at the gathering when Sherman, who served as the keynote speaker, presented the two checks in the total amount of US$20,000 to me in the presence of executives of IE Majestic Club,” Tolbert clarified. Although during the trial he was not allowed to testify, he said he presented information about this to the investigators of the Special Presidential Taskforce set up by then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to investigate the allegations made by Global Witness.
Tolbert said that he was not the sole signatory to the IE’s account at the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI).
“The Club had four signatories to its account at the LBDI and, after I received the two checks, we immediately deposited them to the account. I provided copies of the deposit slips to the investigators to substantiate that,” Tolbert said. He added: “All of those documents that included the checks, deposit slips of the IE’s accounts were presented to the investigators.”
He continued, “So, how could their investigator, Marc Kollie, testify under oath that I received US$20,000 in cash from Sherman and Sable Mining during a secret meeting?”
According to Tolbert, the investigators invited him on May 16, 2016 and, the next day, he immediately went to clarify about the US$20,000 checks he had received in the name of IE. Tolbert also claimed that Sherman, at that program, also pledged to donate US$10,000 to the Barrolle Football Club of which, the late Cllr. Theophilus Gould, then prosecutor in the Sable Mining case, was also an executive in 2010.
“Was that a bribe also?” Tolbert wondered, “if so for what purpose?” he rhetorically asked.
About the US$50,000, Tolbert said that the prosecution was confused or deliberately mischievous. “The doctored so-called spreadsheet of Sable Mining only named payment made to “Tolbert,” but did not say “Richard Tolbert.” Am I the only Tolbert in the country?” Tolbert asked. Was the government not aware that there were other Tolberts that were involved in legitimate businesses with Sable Mining? Didn’t the government have to admit that it made a mistake when it identified another payment of $150,000 to Momolu Tolbert, a private businessman doing legitimate cocoa business with Sable, as a payment to Richard Tolbert?”
On the issue of US$25,000 as loan he provided to fund the IE trip to Morocco to face Wydad in the African Cup of Nations in 2012 in fulfillment of the club’s international football engagement, Tolbert said up to present, the club has not paid it back to him.
“I gave the money to IE two years after I left government. So how could I have arranged a loan to IE in 2012, two years after leaving government as a “pass-through bribe” to get the money Sherman and Sable gave IE in 2010?”
I would have been a clairvoyant genius to have worked out such a scheme for a loan, which I have still not been repaid by IE some seven years later in 2019.”
“Perhaps,” Tolbert remarked, “as one of my friends once told me, “no good deed in Liberia goes unpunished!”
As for Section 75 of the PPCC Act of 2010, Tolbert said that there were no changes made to the law.
He said that the country was then using two laws, to include the mining law of 2000, and the PPCC law of 2005.
He said that the 2000 mining law allows mining licenses to be granted without a bid, but the PPCC law of 2005 says all mining licenses must be put up for a bid. “It was because of this conflict in the laws that the government international experts advised it in 2007 to harmonize the two laws.”
Tolbert said because of that, the PPCC passed regulation 002 in 2007, giving the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy (now Ministry of Mines and Energy) authority to grant some mining licenses without going through a bidding exercise, especially in the case of Greenfield exploration license. “This was a normal best international practice,” Tolbert said.
However, since PPCC regulation 002 of 2007 was still conflicting with the PPCC Act of 2005, it was necessary to amend the act. Drafts of the new Act including section 75 were done with the assistance of international legal and mining experts as early as 2007 by the PPCC, completed by December 2009, and incorporated in the final Amended PPCC Act of 2010 without a single item being changed.
“How could this all have been done to benefit Sable when Sable never arrived in Liberia until sometime in mid-2010? This draft Act was done by December 2009 long before the arrival of Sable Mining to Liberia in mid-2010,” Tolbert said.
He continued, “The same Section 75 was in the PPCC Act of 2010 was never changed, so why should anyone attempt to bribe us in 2010 for an act that was never changed and in fact could not have benefited Sable Mining.”
According to Tolbert, under regulation 002 of 2007 and the final act of 2010 licenses for non-bidding exploration areas could only be granted to what are considered as Greenfield’s projects, where there was no mineral data, and Wologizi Mountain was not a Greenfield area as there were extensive mineral data on the mountain from the 1970s, all of which was provided to the government during the trial.”
Tolbert went on that when he served as chairman of the Inter-Ministerial Concession Committee; on February 12, 2010 he informed then cabinet that Wologizi Mountain should go for open competitive bidding as it was not a “Greenfield” project. He said he provided the government with copies of the cabinet minutes to substantiate his claim, but the government ignored that.
“In fact if the government had wanted to award Wologizi Mountain as a Greenfield project to Sable Mining, they could not have gotten it, because Sable Mining was number 11 in line as a company that had expressed interest in Wologizi Mountain, and under the mining law for Greenfield exploration permit the government would have applied a ‘first-in, first assessed’ principle of regulation 002 and the PPCC Act,” Tolbert said.
“And what about the five year statute of limitations for bribery,” Tolbert asked. “Even if it was proven that the alleged crimes were committed in 2010, why did the government not dismiss the case it brought in 2016 as time-bound under the five years Liberia statute of limitations?” he said.
On rumors that the government had attempted to drop the charges against him via a “nolle prosequoi” (drop the case against him) due to lack of evidence, Tolbert said, “My lawyers advised against it, because the government could have still come back if they were never satisfied with me,” Tolbert noted. “So I decided to fully and finally vindicate myself of the accusation in a court of competent jurisdiction as was done in the case as I knew I was innocent.”
Tolbert said although he would not like to repeat the ordeal, he had high respect for the judges, who presided over the trial as triers of fact and law in a lengthy, complicated, highly politically charged three-year trial, especially Judge Peter Gbenewelleh, who had to read the voluminous oral and testamentary evidence, and applied the law fairly and meticulously.