It took Criminal Court ‘C’ in Monrovia three years to get close to issuing a judgment in the Global Witness report which alleged that several current and past public officials received over US$950,000 in bribes through Sable Mining’s Liberian lawyer, Senator Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County, to alter Liberia’s Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC) law, which would have enabled the officials to award the Wologizi Mountain in Lofa County to Sable without any competitive bidding process.
Judge Peter Gbeneweleh has meanwhile scheduled final argument of the case on Monday, July 22, 2019, after the prosecution announced on Thursday, July 18 that they had rested with the production of their witnesses, including two rebuttal witnesses.
It is yet unknown as to whether Judge Gbeneweleh will render his judgment after today’s arguments, as was done in several other cases.
Key facts on the three year long trial of the Global Witness bribery scandal charges against Sherman along with former speaker Alex Tyler, the Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy (now Mines and Energy), Eugene Shannon; Deputy Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, Ernest C.B. Jones; Morris Saytumah, Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs, now a Senator of Bomi County; Richard Tolbert, former chairman of the National Investment Commission (NIC); Willie Belleh, former chairman of PPCC; and a Nigerian businessman, Christopher Onanuga.
The charges against Tolbert have however been dropped.
The defendants are facing charges of bribery, economic sabotage, criminal conspiracy, criminal solicitation and criminal facilitation. Prosecutors are asking for the maximum sentence for 15 years in prison.
The office of than Special Presidential Taskforce set up by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to investigate the alleged bribery accusation charged Senator Sherman, who was Sable’s Liberia lawyer, of receiving US$950,000 from the company to be used as bribes, and distributed it among the defendants that included former House Speaker Alex Tyler.
The taskforce was then chaired by Sirleaf’s Minister of State without Portfolio, J. Fonati Koffa, now a lawmaker for Grand Kru County.
Evidence of the Office of the Special Presidential Taskforce
The main argument was that the emails and spreadsheet, which the Global Witness claimed was obtained from then country director of Sable Mining, Heine Van Neikerk, according to the report, named some of the officials who allegedly received bribes. They were: Speaker Tyler, $75,000 for “consulting fees”; Richard Tolbert, chairman of the NIC, US$50,000 for “consulting fees”; Morris Saytumah, Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs, now a senator, US$50,000 for “consulting fees”; and Willie Belleh, PPCC chairman, $10,000 for “consulting fees.”
Two of the biggest payments allegedly went to Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy (now mines and energy), Eugene Shannon, Deputy Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy Ernest C.B. Jones, in the amount of $250,000 each, with no explanation why the payments were being made.
For Christopher Onanuga, there was no money allotted d to him, but was an executive of Delta Mining in which Sable had only a minority interest. But the payments, Global Witness alleged, came from Delta’s spreadsheet.
The prosecution is of the strong opinion that Sherman gave the green light for Sable’s payment of the money to the co-defendants.
Who testified against Sherman and his co-defendants?
Two witnesses of the Special Presidential Taskforce were interrogated during the trial including the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) chief investigator, D. Blamo Kofa and his deputy Marc M. Kollie, who testified when the case was first heard in 2016, but did not appear at the 2019 trial.
However, Kofa’s and Kollie’s initial testimonies were used for the case.
Their testimonies concerned the email and spread sheet, which they claimed to have collected from senior executives of Global Witness and Sable Mining in the United Kingdom (UK) and in South Africa, respectively.
Others were two rebuttal witnesses, Fred Snorton, whose testimony was concerned with the hacking of an emails, which Sherman had claimed that his communication with Sable Mining was hacked by the Global Witness.
Aaron Henry Aboah was the chief investigator of the Taskforce who the Global Witness directly released the document to.
Who testified for the defendants?
Sherman, Tyler and Jones were the three persons who testified for the defense team and subsequently denied the allegation of bribery and inserting Section 75 of the PPCC Act into the law to make Wologisi Mountain a non-bidding area for Sable Mining.
Mrs. Mildred N. Sayon, clerk of the House of Representatives; Joseph S. Neuvillie, former executive director of the PPCC; and Emmanuel O. Sherman, Deputy Minister for Operations at the Ministry of Mines an Energy and former chief of Geologist for the Liberia Geological Survey at the ministry, were witnesses the court subpoenaed to testify based on a request of the defense lawyers.
Their testimonies supported those of the defendants that no law was changed.
How was the trial going?
The trial of the six defendants, Senator Sherman together with former speaker Alex Tyler, former MinisterEugene Shannon, fomer Deputy Minister Ernest C.B. Jones, Senator Morris Saytumah, Former NIC chairman Richard Tolbert, former PPCC chair Willie Belleh, and Nigerian businessman, Christopher Onanuga, started on May 4, 2016.
In June, the case went to the Supreme Court on an appeal by the taskforce against a decision of then Criminal Court ‘C’ assigned Judge Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay.
On June 16, 2017, then Chamber Justice Philip A.Z. Banks (now retired) addressed the taskforce concern when he reversed the judgment of Gbeisay, and ordered the continuation of the matter, which did not happen until June 2019.
Gbeisay had earlier denied marking permanent the alleged Global Witness emails and spreadsheets as evidence, describing it as an “error.”
Judge Gbeisay’s contention by then was that, unless Heine van Niekerk, a South African and executive of Sable Mining, believed to be the author of the documents, comes to Liberia to testify about their authenticity, he (Gbeisay) would not admit said emails and spreadsheets as evidence.
The intent of the money, the taskforce claimed was to allegedly influence the public officials to change a portion of the PPCC Act of 2010 that was then before lawmakers, so as to award the mining company the concession right to the Wologizi Mountain in Lofa County, without going through any competitive bidding process.
“The allegations contained in a sworn affidavit sought to be marked as grave, and it touches the nerve center of this case from a distance,” Judge Gbeisay’s decision said then.
However, while reversing Gbeisay’s decision, Banks said that the judge should have treated the emails and spreadsheets “at a level which, he believes, they may have been worthy or whether they are to be given any worthiness or credence or, whether they should be accorded any credibility from all of the surrounding circumstances.”
He said Gbeisay cannot exclude them from the report on grounds that they are hearsay.
“Gbeisay’s judgment that he was doubtful of the information contained in the documents until the maker appeared to testify to its authenticity was erroneous,” Justice Banks said.
“We wonder if Judge Gbeisay was deciding the case at this point since his concern was to the truthfulness of the allegation contained in the affidavit, rather than the relevance of such allegation to the disposition of the issue before him that was the bribery case,” he said.
“In spite of the fact that members of the team who conducted the investigation were produced and testified to the documents, it was a clear error on the part of the judge, because it was legal and prudent for Gbeisay to have marked the emails and spreadsheet permanently,” Justice Banks declared.
Moreover, the justice added, “He did not see that the delivery of the documents to the state by a person who was legally in possession of said documents can be a violation of any of the constitutional rights of the defendants.”