The chamber of the Supreme Court was yesterday a scene of disbelief and laughter when four of the five justices pointed out several procedural errors made by the National Elections Commission (NEC) when they rejected Liberty Party (LP) vice standard bearer Harrison Karnwea on the authority of Code of Conduct (CoC).
“The procedure for only the chairman to sign the rejection letter does not establish that the other commissioners ascribed to that decision,” Chief Justice Francis Korkpor emphasized. “Where is the documentary evidence that the six other commissioners agreed with the chairman’s action?” Justice Korkpor asked the NEC legal team.
Immediately after recognizing NEC’s procedural errors, a member of the legal team, Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, was heard pleading, “We are going to make the necessary correction after this hearing.”
“What NEC has been doing is that the decision of the Board of Commissioners does not necessarily have to be signed by the other six commissioners, it is only the chairman’s signature that normally appears on the majority decision,” Cllr. Dean explained. “The chairman’s signature is always the final; it has been NEC tradition.”
The justices’ discovery came about during arguments on Karnwea’s complaint against the NEC, claiming that the electoral body erroneously misconstrued Section 5.2 of the Code of Conduct (CoC), and subsequently prevented him from running for the position of vice president of the Republic of Liberia, an elected public office.
The justices yesterday reserved opinion (ruling) on the matter, and did not say when they will deliver it, though there are about 75 days to the election.
It all started when a member of the NEC legal team, Cllr. Musah Dean, was asked whether Karnwea’s rejection met the approval of all seven members of the Board of Commissioners, to which Dean replied in the affirmative.
Again, asked why only NEC chairman Jerome Korkoya’s signature appeared on the letter of rejection sent to Karnwea instead of the seven commissioners, Dean, in his justification, made reference to Section 2.10 of the New Election Laws, captioned: ‘Duties of Chairman and Co-chairman,’ which provides that, “The Chairman of the Commission shall have the following special duties and functions: a) Be the official head and spokesman of the Commission; (b) Presides over all meetings and hearings of elections contests; (c) For the purpose of expediting the hearings and determination of all election offenses; and other business of the Commission shall apportion the Republic into five (5) administrative areas and assign a commissioner to an area who shall, in consultation with the Commissioner…direct and supervise all election activities in his area of assignment including the hearing and determination of election offenses arising there from which determination, having been previously approved by the Commission shall be final; (d) Controls, supervises and directs the administrative operation of the office of the Commission and in consultation with the Commissioners, takes such corrective administrative measures for the smooth and effective operation of the Commission.”
Also, section 1.3.17 of the Code of Conduct (CoC) provides that the “Ombudsman means someone or a group of persons appointed or authorized by the President of the Republic of Liberia and confirmed by the Senate to enforce, oversee, monitor and evaluate adherence to the Code of Conduct. Such individual or group of persons shall receive and investigate complaints against Public Officials, Employees of Government and National Institutions.”
Although section 2.10 makes no reference to the chairman being the only person to sign a rejection communication as in the case of Karnwea and other rejected aspirants, including Abu Kamara, who is a current assistant minister at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, Cllr. Dean argued that “the chairman’s signature is the final decision.”
Also, when Karnwea’s lawyer, Cllr. Powo Hilton, was asked whether he filed a complaint about his letter of rejection to the other Board of Commissioners, Hilton replied in the negative.
“It is clear we should have filed a complaint to the Board of Commissioners, but that did not happen, because we saw the signature of the NEC chairman on the communication, this was why we did not appeal to the Board of Commissioners,“ Hilton said. “And we decided to come to the Supreme Court to act on our behalf.”
The Election Laws requires those rejected to announce an appeal of the Elections Commission’s decision within 48 hours; thereafter, if they are not satisfied, then within 72 hours, before they can file with the Supreme Court their appropriate and necessary papers and documents to perfect the appeal.
That process was also abandoned by Karnwea, and his lawyers subsequently ran to the Supreme Court without announcing an appeal of Korkoya’s rejection letter.
Before the procedural errors contention, Cllr. Dean defended the NEC’s rejection of Karnwea, claiming that Karnwea had the intent and desire to engage in political activities long before his resignation from the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), where he served as managing director.
“Karnwea’s resignation from the ruling Unity Party and his joining the LP, all is an egregious violation of the CoC,” the NEC contended. “The fact that his political leader and standard bearer, who was and remains aware of his (Karnwea’s) egregious violation and (ineligibility) to contest, would choose him to be his running mate, suggests a disregard for the rule of law.”
The NEC claimed that Karnwea engaged in political activities while serving as managing director of the FDA.
“The inference is that Karnwea used government facilities, equipment and or resources in support of partisan or political activities, prior to his resignation publicly from the Unity Party (UP) and joining the LP,” the NEC contended. “This has given Karnwea obvious undue advantage over other candidates, which he intends to employ for a personal electoral lead.”
The NEC also alleged that on February 14, 2017, while serving as managing director of FDA, at an elaborate press conference, Karnwea announced his resignation from the ruling UP and joined the LP.
In counter argument, Cllr. Hilton said Karnwea did not harbor any political intention when he resigned his post as FDA managing director.
“Karnwea’s communication for resignation to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf informed her that after he had served for over four years, he was resigning from her government to go back to his farm to live his private life,” Hilton told the justices.
“There was no political intention or desire as NEC had claimed. It was after his resignation that Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine, standard bearer of the LP, asked him to serve as his running mate, which he immediately accepted.
“Karnwea did not harbor any future political ambition before resigning from the UP and his post at FDA.”
Immediately after the hearing, when Karnwea spoke with judicial reporters, he asked all partisans of the LP to remain kind, because he has confidence in the justice system.
“I trust the justice system and we should respect and see the outcome of their decision,” Karnwea pleaded.