The US $200 Million Lobby Saga: Did Rep. Dr. Bhofal Chambers Raise False Alarm?

By Ruel Francis Dempster_web.jpg

Liberia’s House of Representatives has commenced probing allegations that the Liberian Government under the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration spent over US$200 Million on lobbying. President Sirleaf has denied the allegations and reported to the Legislature that her government has spent an average of approximately US$52,601 annually over a period of seven years, totaling approximately US$ 368,609, and used a single lobbying firm (KRL International). President Sirleaf also told the Speaker that the allegations by Maryland County Representative Bhofal Chambers could cause “great harm” to the country as his allegation is simply not true. The basis of these allegations is the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reports provided the United States Congress by the US Department of Justice during the period 2006 through 2012.

A principal promoter of the allegation is Mr. Jerry Wion, a prolific writer. According to Mr. Wion, “this has been a pattern over the years even before President Sirleaf took over “as shown in the FARA document. During the administration of the Interim Government under the leadership of His Excellency Charles Gyude Bryant, FARA report reveals that in 2005, LISCR reported US$30,407,929 collected in taxes and fees on behalf of the Liberian government. During that period, LISCR’s nature of service was described as Lobbying. In 2004, the FARA report lists US$34,517,858 reported by LISCR, while describing its nature of service as Lobbying. Was LISCR actually engaged in lobbying for the Liberian government? Were the amounts listed in the FARA report Lobby Fees? The companies which were paid the millions are neither listed by Mr. Wion nor included in the FARA report. It will only be fair to us, the readers, for Mr. Wion to list the lobby firms which received millions in payments for the aforementioned services. The US Law requires Agents to register as Lobbyist; but, they are not limited to that activity (Source; the FARA website). The critical question is: Did the FARA document say that the Liberian Government of President EJS spent over US$200 million on lobbying at anytime during her regime? The answer is, No! Many persons, including my well respected friend and brother Honorable Dr. Bhofal Chambers, have a problem with understanding the report.

What the FARA document did say is that the Agent of the Liberian Government (LISCR) collected amounts to the tune of over US$275,521,107 in taxes and fees over a period of seven years (up to 2012) during the administration of EJS. In 2011, the Registry/LISCR generated US$75, 979, 227 in taxes and fees. But in 2012, collection dwindled to US$ 71,204,959, according to the FARA report. (Real big bucks – How much of that ended up in GOL revenues at the Central Bank as required by Law? And; how much of GOL’s entitlement was legally released from the Central Bank of Liberia). The Ways, Means, Finance and Budget Committees of both Houses might want to perform due diligence by investigating the Ministry of Finance reports on maritime contribution to the national budget and comparing the figures with FARA documents. Did GOL receive its fair share of the amounts generated by FARA?

While it is true that LISCR reported that it performed lobbying functions for the government of Liberia, it is an open secret that the main role of LISCR is the collection of taxes and fees for the Liberia Maritime Authority/GOL, as indicated in the FARA report. At first glance, it appears as if LISCR blundered in its report to FARA, as stated by President Sirleaf in a subsequent interview.  Now, if it is verified by the Investigative Committee headed by Hon. S. Gayah Karmo that LISCR blundered by making a false representation which embarrassed government, some appropriate remedial measures should be undertaken. However, FARA protocol does allow one to register as a Lobbyist and perform other functions.

Now, with a 40/60 percent revenue sharing (Compared to the 20/80 percent under the Doe Regime) between LISCR and GOL, and LISCR paying lobby fees to the tune of more than US$275 million over a period of seven years, what was LISCR’s contribution to the National Budget of Liberia during that period? What did LISCR take home to its shareholders/partners during that period? Is it practical?

These are basic questions one would expect members of the Gayah Karmo Committee to answer after their probe. The findings of the Karmo Committee might just find its way to Plenary and subsequently to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and then on to the Auditor General for an Audit of LISCR to ensure compliance with the Agreement and curtail possibility of fraud. Will the Committee be provided the required operational support to facilitate its undertaking?

It will be worthwhile to spend a couple of thousand dollars to conduct this probe, as the discoveries will underwrite the cost of the trip and provide additional funds to the budget.

Finally, it may be worthwhile to begin considering self management of the Registry. LISCR might have performed its role, and outlived its usefulness. This is time for Liberia to receive optimum benefit from a business she has participated in for over fifty years. Let national interest, for once, supersede personal interests. Liberia now has the trained and experienced professionals to run a registry. A minimum of US$10 million dished out to a foreign firm to do something Liberians could do, does not make much sense. Let’s rethink the LISCR contract.

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