Haunting questions linger, amid Cllr. Seward Cooper’s reaction to SPC report
Former legal advisor to President Sirleaf, Cllr. Seward Cooper, one of those persons named by Global Witness (GW) in the ExxonMobil alleged bribery scheme, has now broken his silence and written his response to findings of the Special Presidential Committee set up by President Weah to probe the GW allegations.
He is the latest of the accused to respond. Others who had earlier responded include former Special Presidential Advisor Robert Sirleaf, followed by former Justice Minister Christiana Hammond Tah. All have since denied culpability and insisted that their actions were in keeping with law, though haunting questions linger.
For his part Cllr. Cooper maintains that the Special Presidential Committee’s report “contains several false and sweeping statements” which in his opinion were neither fair nor balanced and “it appears hastily put together without the due diligence merited for such an undertaking”.
Cllr. Cooper further maintains that, as a result of such a report, “the President and the public have been presented a document replete with errors, innuendos, and aspersions that impugn the reputations of honest and dedicated public servants. It does a disservice to the presidency, to the country, and to those looking for accountability in governance”.
Additionally, Mr. Cooper observed that he was not a member of the NOCAL Board in April, 2013 “when the Board deliberated, approved, and caused to be paid bonuses in recognition of “the unprecedented international success and gain Liberia realized out of the intense and very lengthy negotiations with ExxonMobil.”
Moreover he maintains that he was a member of the Hydrocarbon Technical Committee (HTC) and he participated as a lead negotiator and it was not until later in 2014 that he was appointed to the NOCAL Board. Mr. Cooper then goes on to list a host of “achievements from which he claims the Government of Liberia benefited aside from the US$50 million signature fee paid by ExxonMobil and its partners.
According to him, this was a remarkable achievement since they had been instructed, apparently by President Sirleaf, to seek no less than 27 million from ExxonMobil and its partners for Oil Block 13. And Mr. Cooper admits having received bonus payments not from ExxonMobil, but rather from the state owned National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL).
Further, he said, “Predicated on these achievements, and we understood with the assent of Liberia’s President, the NOCAL Board of Directors decided to authorize and pay bonuses. Lead members of the HTC negotiating team, including the American lawyers, were given bonuses. As a lead negotiator, I too got such a bonus. No member of the negotiating team, to my knowledge, worked anticipating these bonuses; nor did anyone demand money from GoL, NOCAL, or any other party”.
And just like his colleagues on the negotiating team have maintained, there was no wrong doing on their part as the money was paid by a legitimate state owned institution, NOCAL and he claims it was done under the NOCAL Act 2002 and the Liberian business corporation laws passed by the Liberian Legislature.
However, troubling and haunting questions linger despite the heroics Mr. Cooper attributes to his team of negotiators which resulted in the unprecedented payment of a US$50 million signature fee. Whether the payment of the signature fee was intended to induce cooperation with ExxonMobil’s drive to acquire a sweetheart oil concession agreement at all costs even if it meant side stepping the law remains unclear.
But investigations conducted by this newspaper shows that the negotiations were done outside the framework of the law and that law was the 2002 New Petroleum Law passed into law during the presidency of Charles Taylor. All the evidence shows that the law had not been amended prior to the conclusion of negotiations of the ExxonMobil concession agreement. The law provided for 10 percent Liberian participation, in addition to a Government of Liberia 20 percent equity in any oil concession, which according to experts in the industry was good for Liberia.
Under Section 3.1 of the New Petroleum Law of Liberia approved June 7, 2002 and published in handbills on July 2, 2002, “all hydrocarbon deposits belong to and are the properties of the Republic of Liberia which are held in trust by the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL).” From all indications this section of the law was not even recognized nor observed.
Section 3.3 provides : “The National Oil Company’s Participation in Ownership: The National Oil Company, in addition to other rights, interests and benefits it is entitled to receive under any and all Production Sharing Agreements, it shall also receive, free of charge, equity interest in all production operations and exploitation of hydrocarbon deposits in the Republic of Liberia. The value of such equity interest shall be twenty (20%) percent of the authorized, issued and outstanding capital shares existing at any time, without dilution”
Also in Section 3.4. under the title “Stock Purchase” it provides: “The holder of the rights to hydrocarbon deposits shall notify the National Oil Company of Liberia, that shares equivalent to ten percent (10%) of its stock are available for purchase by Liberians and/or any such interested citizens.
As it appears, all these provisions of the 2002 New Petroleum Law were circumvented ostensibly for ulterior motives which analysts believe was influenced by the US$50 million paid to NOCAL by ExxonMobil and from which bonuses were paid. Further, the New 2002 Petroleum Law, having been amended in 2014, was not passed into law until October 10, 2016, well after the negotiations with ExxonMobil had been concluded, which in effect meant that the 2002 New Petroleum law was scrapped by the Hydrocarbon Technical Committee as well as by NOCAL, according to legal analysts.
From the foregoing, according to legal analysts, it can be concluded that that Cllr. Seward Cooper and team conducted all such negotiations outside a guiding legal framework which in that case should have been the 2002 New Petroleum Law. As former Justice Minister Cllr. Christiana Hammond Tah has noted, the Hydrocarbon Technical Committee was chaired by the son of the President and Special Advisor, Robert Sirleaf, and it is he who made all the decisions, according to Cllr. Tah.
As the she noted in her recent interview with talk show host, Henry Costa, when she attempted raising issues about Liberian participation and ownership during the negotiations, President Sirleaf, she recalled, told her “Madame Minister, you have your marching orders”, meaning in effect, she had no business raising such issues especially when she (President Sirleaf) had not instructed her as Justice Minister to do so.
She insisted that Mr. Robert Sirleaf, son of the President and Special Advisor was in full control of proceedings, although he may have appeared to be doing so from a distance. However after sifting through all the facts, what becomes clear are the following:
- That all those accused by Global Witness and reaffirmed by the Special Presidential Committee admitted to having received bonus payments from NOCAL;
- Claims that the payments were authorized by the NOCAL board with the assent of President Sirleaf are unsubstantiated in the absence of physical documentation attesting to such claims;
- The negotiations were done outside the existing legal framework — the 2002 New Petroleum law; and
- The 2002 New Petroleum law was never ever amended and passed into law until 2016, two years after the conclusion of the ExxonMobil Concession agreement.
In the final analysis, wherefore and therefore in view of all the foregoing it can be safely assumed, according to a well known legal practitioner (name withheld) that the payments made to the accused individuals did constitute a bribe as affirmed by the Special Presidential Committee.