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Liberia's Corruption Task Force Executes ‘Probable Cause Arrests’

The London-based Global Witness alleges that over $950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments were made to top Liberian officials by the Britain-based Sable Mining Company and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.

In Liberia, a special presidential task force, appointed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to investigate a corruption report released last month by Global Witness, began carrying out what it calls “probable cause arrests” on Monday.

The London-based Global Witness alleged that over $950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments were made to top Liberian officials by the Britain-based Sable Mining Company and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.

Bribes for mining concessions

According to the report entitled The Deceivers, Sable Mining wanted to get the concession rights to Liberia’s Wologizi iron ore.

Sherman, who is also chairman of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s ruling Unity Party, allegedly told the company that in order to get the contract, Sable Mining must first offer bribes to senior officials to change Liberia’s concession laws.

VOA contacted Sherman about this charge Monday but he said he had no comment.

Task Force chairman and Minister of State without Portfolio, J. Fonati Koffa said bribery under Liberian laws is a criminal offense.

But he said the probable cause arrests were not targeting Sherman alone but all those who have been named in the Global Witness report.

“The multi-agency presidential task force on the Global Witness report started off this morning [Monday] to execute a series of probable cause arrests. The primary agents in charge of that portion of the operations were the agents from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission,” he said.

Koffa said police did not surround Sherman’s residence as had been circulated on some social media platforms. But he said at some point some supporters of Sherman entered his residence which necessitated the deployment of additional riot police.

“Let’s remember one thing! This is not about Counselor Sherman. This is about the Global Witness report. And what the agents did was they had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed and an individual committed that crime, they can go and hold that individual for about 48 hours under our law. They did not attempt to do that only for Counselor Sherman. There were a number of persons who were targeted this morning [Monday],” Koffa said.

'Consulting fees'

According to the report, among some of the officials who allegedly received bribes were Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives Alex Tyler, $75,000 for “consulting fees” and Richard Tolbert, chairman of the National Investment Committee $50,000 for “consulting fees”.

Morris Saytumah, minister of state for finance, economic and legal affairs, now a senator, also allegedly received $50,000 for “consulting fees”, and Willie Belleh, chairman of public procurement and concessions commission, allegedly received $10,000 for “consulting fees”.

Two of the biggest payments went to persons identified in the report as “Bigboy 01” and “Bigboy 02”, each allegedly receiving $250,000 with no explanation why the payments were made.

Sherman is adamant. He will not cooperate.

Sherman has told the Task Force that he has no intention of cooperating with the investigation, but he reportedly filed a motion over the weekend to dismiss the subpoena in a bid to deny access to the accounts of his law firm on grounds that there is no pending case that requires the firm to release its financial records.

Koffa said Sherman has informed the Task Force of his intention not to cooperate. He said they cannot break into Sherman’s house unless they get a search warrant.

“Probable cause of arrest is not based on warrants. What we did have the Ministry of Justice do, within two hours, was issue a search warrant for the premises of Cllr. Sherman and the law offices of Cllr. Sherman. They are in the process of executing the search warrant on the law office. They have not yet done the premises,” Koffa said.

Koffa said his task force is contemplating other steps, keeping in mind to always to conform to the law.

Vendetta against Sherman?

Sherman is also a Liberian senator and serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. There had been speculation that the Global Witness corruption investigation was an attempt to get back at Sherman because he had told President Sirleaf not to nominate Koffa as justice minister because Koffa has a tainted record while a lawyer in United States.

Koffa denied the Global Witness investigation was a vendetta against Sherman.

“I didn't write the Global Witness report; I didn't engineer the Global Witness report. The Global Witness report came to us and I was assigned that responsibility as a result of grave damage to the country’s image. The only way your theory or the assumption of someone can be true is if indeed they can show that I participated in engineering the report from Global Witness. I had no clue about that, and I absolutely and categorically deny that it is about any vendetta,” Koffa said.