One of the people indicted by the Liberian government last year for “economic sabotage,” and wanted for extradition from the United States, said the allegations against him and his alleged collaborators are false and unfounded.
Judge Melvin Johnson, a Liberian-American and the first black Chief Judge of Lithonia, Georgia, said he and his alleged co-conspirator, Ellen Corkrum, have assembled hundreds of pages of documents and email correspondence that would prove their case.
Corkrum, also a Liberian-American, was appointed by the Liberian government as managing director of the Liberian Airport Authority. With her recommendation, the airport’s board of directors approved Johnson as legal advisor.
Johnson said he and Corkrum began secretly recording senior government officials, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, when they learned of a plot by government officials to undermine their anti-corruption measures.
He said they were told by Defense Minister Brownie Samukai that certain government officials, including the Finance Minister, Amara Konneh, and Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Edward McClain, “wanted unfettered access to $130 million that was slated for airport renovation.”
Government alleges theft of $1 million
The Liberian government said Corkrum and Johnson stole over $1 million and fled the country. Justice Minister Christiana Tah confirmed to VOA that the government has indicted the pair and asked the US government to extradite them.
But, Tah said she would not discuss the merits of the case because “it’s before the court.”
In her State of the Nation speech on January 27, Sirleaf said of Corkrum: “A major setback in efforts for the development of the airport resulted from an unscrupulous and conspiring newly recruited Managing Director, who returned kindness and deference with entrapment and intriguing accusations to damage the credibility of several individuals, and the image of the country. This matter is under review by counsel in the United States for legal redress, including extradition.”
Johnson said the charges are bogus and are an attempt by the government to cover up what he calls “the embarrassing revelations” contained in the secret recordings made of government officials and others.
“First of all, there has been so many stories, so many different allegations of different amounts. If you have followed the story, there’s been accusation of $3 million, $500,000, $1 million, $269,000, etc. Whatever the amounts that follow the accusation, my response remains the same: it is false, it is unfounded. We did not take anything, we did not steal anything from this government or the people of Liberia,” he said.
Johnson said the basis for the government’s accusation is that he and Corkrum made up a fake company – Diaspora Consulting.
Johnson denies Liberian government charges
He described the government’s claims as unfounded and showed VOA pages of documents which he said proved that there were email correspondence between representatives of his company and officials of the Liberian government.
“So, if this company was faked, then there should not have been any communication between representatives of this company and the people working on the ground in Liberia,” Johnson said.
In declining to discuss the specifics of the case with VOA, Justice Tah said, “As you know when the case is being heard and the jury is being empaneled the jury will come from the general public," said the justice minister. "So it’s not always a good idea. It’s also against the law to discuss the merits of the case as you have heard in the past few weeks,” Tah said.
Tah denies the Liberian government issued the indictments against Johnson, Corkrum and their alleged collaborators to squash corruption allegations made by government officials in secret recordings.
Johnson said he and Corkrum began secretly recording government officials once they discovered that “these government officials were stealing from the poor people of Liberia”.
Claims of secret tape recordings
”Liberia has a history of Liberians talking about problems but not being willing to become sacrificial lambs, not being willing to take risk, and so we decided to take that risk. Now, we determined that the only way to present to the world later on was to record these people. And so that’s why we went on the spree of recording these government officials - including the president of Liberia - because we wanted to expose this to the world, and wanted it to be authenticated with the voices of the culprits,” Johnson said.
Johnson says he and Corkrum have secret tape recordings of numerous people in government, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her sister and others directly and indirectly influencing government.
“All the recordings we have are tailored to exposing corruption or tailored to bring the truth to the Liberian people and to the world as to why the everyday people of Liberia continue to suffer in light of all the natural resources and international goodwill that we have,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he and Corkrum have already played secret recordings of Defense Minister Brownie Samukai and National Police Director Chris Massaquoi.
Asked why he and Corkrum fled Liberia instead of staying to fight a government of Liberia indictment, Johnson said they fled because Defense Minister Samukai and Police Director Massaquoi revealed to them a plot by certain government officials to get rid of them.
Claims of a death warrant
“The reason we fled was very simple. The highest security officer in Liberia, the minister of defense told us that government officials were plotting against us, and, quoting him, that they had signed our death warrant. Eventually, we had an opportunity to speak to the director of police. The director of police for the entire country told us additionally that the president of Liberia had ordered us to be captured at night, but he wasn’t clear as to why we were ordered to be captured,” he said.
Others have described the secret recording of officials as a betrayal of confidentiality. But Johnson said they had to do so because corruption was and continues to impact ordinary Liberians.
Johnson said, “... somebody said that if you keep doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting. And so if Liberians are serious about progress, we cannot keep doing the same thing and expect something different. And so we decided to be the sacrificial lambs to bring the truth about this to Liberia and the world, and hopefully by doing something different we’ll get a different result for the prosperity of the people of Liberia,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Liberian government officials helped him and Corkrum to flee the country, but he would not say specifically whether such help was provided by Defense Minister Samukai and Police Director Massaquoi.
“Regarding the details about how we left, we’ve sworn to secrecy as to not expose that because there are other people involved, and the recordings reveal it, but what I can say is that yes, we were assisted to some extent by these government officials. But the details about how we left, because there are so many other parties involved, I’m not at liberty to share that,” he said.
Johnson says if President Sirleaf is serious about fighting corruption she must order the arrest and prosecution of all government officials accused of corruption.
“You have this one finance minister (Amara Konneh), not named by us, but named by his colleagues. And so if this president is halfway serious about corruption, this finance minister, who I am told is her son, he should be arrested and charged and given due process and let the case go forward.
"But the fact that there is no action; the fact that we are being pursued presumably internationally, somehow to show face to the international community that she is about anti-corruption. But she isn’t,” he said.
Justice Minister Tah says the government has been prosecuting corruption cases both in the private and public sectors.
“The government has been, from the beginning of this administration until today very, very concerned about corruption in and out of the government and it has made every effort, even with the limited capacity that we have, to ensure that people are brought to justice,” she said.
Tah said the Liberian government has asked the U.S. government to extradite Corkrum and Johnson.
But Johnson said he and Corkrum have traveled to Washington, DC and met with State and Justice Department officials. He said no U.S. government official has approached them about extradition.
He described the Liberian government’s claims of extradition as “bogus” and an attempt by the government to cover up what he calls “the embarrassing revelations” contained in the secret recordings.
“Back in August (2013), we learned via the media that the president had sent an extradition team to the United States. We’re now towards the end of this year in December (2013). So we’re talking approximately five months later. I don’t know if that extradition team is still at baggage claim at JFK (John F. Kennedy airport) trying to find the way out,” Johnson said.
Butty interview with Melvin Johnson