The Daily Observer has been informed that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met with the Liberia Telecommunications Authority’s (LTA) top brass Friday, amidst mounting allegations of wrong-doing surrounding the regulatory body’s three-year US$1,155,000 sub-lease of an office building on the Congo Town Back Road.
The Observer was informed that in that meeting, LTA Chairman Angelique Weeks apologized to the President for not having her informed about the deal, which had been endorsed by the Ministries of Finance and Justice.
The Chinese building leased by LTA is close to the First Baptist Church, also on the Congo Town back road. The building was constructed by and is being sub-leased from Quingjian International (Lib) Group Development Co. Ltd (CNQC), a Chinese company. Ms. Angelique Weeks has remained quiet during the onslaught of public criticism lodged against her as a result of the transaction. Many have wondered why she was un-waivered, especially in the face of the freeze placed on the LTA’s bank accounts and the uncertainty surrounding whether the lease agreement would be upheld or whether should would retain her post.
This paper was also informed that upon Weeks' recommendation, the LTA Board of Commissioners imposed a temporary gag order on the company’s staff to prevent public comment until circumstances surrounding the lease transaction could be communicated to the President. What is not clear is whether the President lifted the freeze on the LTA’s accounts at various banks.
On Friday, the LTA Chairman and the other Commissioners met with President Sirleaf and quietly made their detailed presentation. Ample documentation in the possession of this paper suggests no wrongdoing in the LTA process. Chairman Weeks, however, has acknowledged that she should have informed the President of the proposed move rather than have her find out in the press, some of whom probably misrepresented the facts.
Reliable sources quoted Chairman Weeks: “The LTA Board of Commissioners reports directly to the President; so there was definitely a lapse in judgment on my part for not telling her ahead of time.”
The LTA put to rest the speculation and allegations that more than US$1 Million was paid in advance. The copy of the Lease Agreement in the Daily Observer's possession clearly calls for yearly payments of US$385,000, 10 percent of which is to be withheld and paid to the Ministry of Finance as real estate income tax. The LTA has reportedly already paid the US$385,000 real estate tax for the leased property into government coffers.
The lease agreement is also signed by the Ministries of Finance and Justice, in keeping with law. Evidence also shows that prior to the agreement, LTA sent a letter dated November 15, 2013 to the Public Procurement and Concessions Commissions (PPCC), giving notice of the LTA’s intent to award the contract to CNQC. Records show that the letter to PPCC was received and signed for on November 20, 2013. The Observer discovered that the LTA also prepared a detailed Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) of the two options — leasing the new office building versus extending the leases for the three locations whose leases are due to expire during the first half of 2014.
“Consistent with best financial management practices, the concept of relevant costing was used as a basis for making an informed decision. Although the annual lease payment for the new office may seem high, the analysis shows that considering the collective operational costs of the three separate offices currently being occupied by the LTA, the LTA will realize cost savings amounting to $15,180. This is a very important factor and shows financial diligence, not extravagance as earlier portrayed,” a source close to the LTA further told the Observer.
Questions surrounding whether the LTA went through the proper procurement process were also put to rest. Media reports questioned the PPCC notification of the process. There were also allegations that the LTA could have used the money to construct its own headquarters. The Observer obtained copies of the paper trail with the list of those who responded to the request for expressions of interest for both leasing options and land to purchase for construction of an LTA headquarters. The LTA’s Ad Hoc Committee Evaluation Report on the EOIs indicates that many respondants to the REOI fell short of the LTA’s stipulated requirements. Several Liberians, including Professor Alhaji G.V. Kromah and Mr. Willis Knuckles, submitted expressions of interest (EOIs). Their properties, however, like most other properties considered, needed extensive repairs. According to the Evaluation Report, one property in particular needed US$2.2 Million to be brought up to standard.
Some Lebanese and Indian national also responded. Analysis suggests that the newly-built Chinese facility on the Congo Town backroad offered the best scenario. According to the documents, the LTA will realize relevant cost savings of $15,180.75 from this transaction.
The LTA came under a barrage of attacks last week after moving two of its offices into the new building that would eventually house its entire staff and possibly the West African Regional Communication Infrastructure Project Implementation Unit, which would save the government an additional $68,000. The new location also reportedly offers significant additional financial and non-financial benefits that many seem to not be taking into consideration. For example, it comes with a generator capable of electrifying the entire building; 32 room air conditioners, a CCTV security system with cameras, a central telephone system for internal communications, network cabling for internet services, and yearly painting of the entire building at the CNQC’s expense. Also, having all employees in one location will negate the need for employees and the public to drive between the several offices, which will save time and gasoline, reduce the wear and tear on utility vehicles, enhance coordination between LTA departments, reduce the processing time for transactions, reduce difficulties experienced by the public in locating the various offices of the LTA, and provide a “one-stop shop” for processing customer transactions.