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Liberia Justice Minister Denies Wrongdoing Over Seized Nigerian Assets

Liberia's Justice Minister says he has done nothing wrong in connection with the government spending cash seized from a Nigerian businessman charged with money laundering.

When Nigerian businessman Valentine Ayika was arrested on charges of money laundering and drug smuggling in September 2006, security officials at Liberia's Roberts International Airport found he was carrying more than $500,000 in cash.

The money was seized, and Ayika was deported several days later.

Now Ayika wants his money back, but the government in Monrovia says it has spent that cash on improving security. And Liberian lawmakers want Justice Minister Phillip Banks to explain what has happened.

Darius Dillon, Chief of Staff for Liberian Senator Jewel Howard-Taylor, says it is government-sanctioned theft that officials are trying to hide behind the classified nature of security spending.

"Are we waiting for a Nigerian man's money to protect ourselves here? This is an unrealistic justification," he said.

Dillon questions why Ayika was deported so quickly and how Justice Minister Banks authorized the spending of cash seized as evidence in a criminal case.

"Our constitution in Article 34D says no money can be used from government coffers without legislative appropriation," said Dillon. "Who authorized the Justice Minister to use that money?"

Banks has given a written response to questions from a House subcommittee investigating the issue. He told reporters in the capital that he has done nothing wrong.

"At no time did I, as Minister of Justice, receive any amount of money," said banks. "At no time did I, as Minister of Justice, expend any amount of money connected with this incident. So this is a total falsehood."

Banks says the order to confiscate the funds came from Liberian courts, not the Justice Ministry. Once he learned that those funds were being spent, he says he wrote the Central Bank governor telling him to stop.

"As Attorney General of the Republic, I am charged to uphold the law," said Banks. "Not to violate it. And therefore my point was that I could not as Attorney General advise the governor of the bank to release any funds to anyone if the court had acted and confiscated those funds. That would have been a contempt of the court. And I was not prepared to engage in a matter of a contempt of our court. I was not prepared as a matter of law to violate the laws of our country."

Banks says it is unfortunate that those representing Ayika have tried to make this a political matter rather than a legal issue. He says it is up to Liberians to decide whether he has committed any legal transgression concerning an affair that happened one full year before he took over at the Justice Ministry.

"As the Attorney General of this country, under Chapter 22 of the Executive Law, I have the authority to give opinions on any legal matter involving the government," said Banks. "That was the legal opinion that I gave."

Ayika says he has nothing to do with drug smuggling and has run a registered branch of his Capitno Global Concept Limited in Monrovia since 2005.

Dillon not only wants Liberia's government to repay the money, he wants Banks to resign.

"If the Justice Ministry is presided over by someone who knows the law and in broad daylight violates it without any conscience, without any remorse, I don't know where we are headed," added Dillon.

Ayika says he is convinced he will get his money back, with interest. Liberian lawyers representing Ayika have filed a motion to have the charges against him dismissed and his money returned.