— Supreme Court tells Lofa County Senator-Elect Samukai
Few days after the National Election Commission (NEC) declared former Defense Minister Brownie Samukai winner of the highly challenged December 8 Special Senatorial election in Lofa County, the Supreme Court on Monday, February 8, made the Senator-elect’s victory sour.
In its unanimous opinion (judgment), the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling from Criminal Court C, which declared Samukai and co-guilts of illegal withdrawing money from Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) pension funds. The court however affirmed the ruling with some modifications.
“The defendants (appellants) are hereby sentenced to serve a term of two years each in a common jail.” The court ruled. “The sentence should be suspended provided the said appellants shall restitute the full amount of US$1,147,656.35 or fifty percent (US$573,828.175).”
Former Defense Minister Samukai, together with two others including Joseph P. Johnson, former Deputy Minister for Administration, and James Nyumah Dorkor, former Comptroller, was in 2020 pronounced guilty by Criminal Court ‘C’ and mandated to restitute the amount of US$1,147,656.35 that they, without the authorization of the leadership of the AFL, withdrew from the soldiers’ Pension Savings Account.
During the case, Samukai argued that it was former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that instructed him to withdraw the money; as a result, he cannot be held guilty for a crime he did not commit. The payment, the court said, must be made within the period of six months and thereafter, enter appropriate arrangements to pay the remaining portion in one year.
“Shall the appellants fail to pay the remaining portion in one calendar year or refuse to restitute as stated, they shall be incarcerated in the common jail until the full amount is paid or liquidated at the rate of US$25 per month as provided for by the law.”
The Supreme Court’s decision was necessitated when Samukai and his codefendants rejected the lower court’s judgment and subsequently announced an appeal to the high court.
Samukai contested on the ticket of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP). However, as a member of the political opposition that swept the Senate in the recent Senatorial mid-term elections, it remains unclear as to whether or not Senator-elect Samukai, now a convict, can be allowed to take his seat in the Senate after being finally declared by the NEC following weeks of delay as a result of hearing of electoral dispute between him and defeated candidate Joseph Jallah.
The Supreme Court’s decision comes few weeks after another CPP Senator, Counselor Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County, was implicated by the US Treasury Department into corruption in the Liberian judicial system, which accusation the High Court rejected and subsequently demanding evidence from the US Treasury.
In Judge Gbeisay’s ruling earlier, he ruled that the defendants (Samukai and others) were guilty of the crimes of theft of property, misuse of public money and criminal conspiracy. Further, the Judge said from the analysis of testimonies on both sides — the defense and the prosecution — it is crystal clear that the defendants did not deny the withdrawal and use of the AFL funds, but instead justified their actions on two counts.
In one justification, Judge Gbeisay said, the accused maintained that they acted in line with the Constitution and relevant laws, and on the other hand, they acted on the orders of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and current President George Weah, adding that it was based on this commitment that President Weah made an initial payment of US$460,000.
According to him (Judge Gbeisay), the AFL pension account is private money owned by the AFL personnel and that the Minister of Defense was correct in making himself, his deputy, and comptroller as signatories to the funds, in that the AFL is under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense who administers the affairs of the AFL.
The AFL’s account was opened under the signatures of Co-defendant J. Brownie Samukai, Jr., former Minister of National Defense as “signatory A” and Defendant J. Nyumah Dorkor, former Comptroller of the Ministry of National Defense as “Signatory B” and Defendant Joseph P. Johnson, former Deputy Minister for Administration, Ministry of Defense, also as “signatory A.”
“As such,” the judge ruled, “Defendant Samukai is by law a fiduciary of the AFL.”
However, Gbeisay further ruled, “It is of the considered opinion that Samukai breached and abused his fiduciary duty to the men and women of the AFL when he selected to misuse their funds for purposes other than intended.”
Earlier, the government had alleged that, of the total amount of US$1,259,462, co-defendant Samukai, with criminal mind, personally authorized and co-signed along with defendant Dorkor, a check for US$852,860 withdrawal, transferred and intentionally expended same, basically on activities that were already provided for under the National Budget of the government, such as AFL operations.
In addition, Samukai illegally paid US$50,000 as death benefits to the families of the late General Abdurrahman, who did not contribute anything to the fund while serving AFL as Chief of Staff; that money was misapplied. In the case of Co-defendant Johnson, the document claims that he authorized and co-signed a check along with co-defendant Dorkor, and caused the withdrawal and subsequent transfer of the sum of US$406,602 from the AFL Pension Account contrary to the intended purpose of the funds which was for supplementary pension package to personnel of the AFL.
Further, all operational funds from the AFL-pension account were authorized to be transferred into the account of the Ministry of National Defense, except the amount of US$16,000, which was paid directly to one Joseph Gegeh to be identified.
“As part of the collusion, all authorization letters directly resulting in the commission of the crime of theft of property by deception was done by Co-defendant Dorkor.
“At the same time, on the 3rd day of the month of October in 2017, former AFL Deputy Minister for Administration, Johnson, criminally and intentionally authorized Ecobank Liberia Limited to change the ‘AFL-Pension account title to AFL Morale and Welfare account’ without any evidence, consultation, and administrative decision and without the consent of the AFL High Command,” the court document said.
The indictment further alleges that, at diverse times during the periods of July 1, 2009, an account named and styled, “AFL Pension Saving Account” at ECOBANK Liberia Limited with account number 1092-522-22-19, was opened under the signatures of Co-defendant Samukai as “signatory A” and Dorkor, as “Signatory B” while, Johnson was also “A”.
The soldiers’ salaries, which were deducted between the period of July 2009 up to and including October 2017, the total of US$1,943,971.99, representing the combined deductions from the salaries of AFL soldiers, was deposited into AFL account.
The deductions were made on the basis of ranks. State prosecutors claimed that the defendants misused US$1,259,462.
The said account was based upon salaries deductions and was established to provide benefits for wounded AFL soldiers, families of dead AFL soldiers and was intended to supplement the pension package to personnel of AFL upon retirement from active service, the indictment further alleges.