Finance Minister Amara Konneh
Very recently, Finance Ministry officials were involved in what from the outside would have appeared as a war of words between the Minister of Finance and two members of the House of Representatives who had openly called for the resignation of Finance Minister, Amara Konneh for repeated budgetary shortfalls resulting from poor financial forecasting.
According to representative Isaac B. Roland from Maryland county, evidence of Amara Konneh’s shoddy handling of the economy is reflected in the repeated budgetary shortfalls being reported by the Minister. And he termed as flimsy, Konneh’s excuses for the repeated budgetary shortfalls. In quick fashion, however, Konneh’s PR team went into overdrive lambasting the lawmakers and calling them all sorts of names for what they described as the legislators’ lack of understanding of financial matters.
What Minister Konneh has failed to realize is that no matter what qualms he may have about the legislators’ so-called lack of understanding of financial matters, he is under obligation to answer queries from legislators because they (legislators) represent the people. In essence what Minister Konneh was saying is that he is not accountable to the people of Liberia.
And if he is not accountable to the people of Liberia through their representatives, then just who is he accountable to is the question he needs to answer. Additionally he needs to explain why repeated budgetary shortfalls continue to plague financial governance under his watch. In other countries around the world, Finance Minister Amara Konneh would have long since been dismissed for sheer incompetence in the wake of his persistently faulty analysis and prognosis of the state of being of the country’s finances.
And instead of responding to the issues raised by Representative Isaac Roland and others concerning the budget Minister Konneh has come out charging from his corner like a wild bull in a china shop, laying waste to any and everything in his path, a charge which amounts to nothing more than the proverbial “tempest in a tea pot” . Whether we like to hear it or not, corruption is the major cancer eating away the fabric of the country’s financial system. Quite often, especially over the last two years we have heard one minister after the other claiming that they had no idea of what was actually in their respective budgets.
We recall for instance the bitter exchanges between Finance Minister Konneh and the chairman of the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, Lofa County Senator Sumo Kupee who had declared that the 2012-2013 budget, although enacted into law, but had not published in handbills to give it legal effect as the law requires. Although Minister Konneh denied the charges, the fact remains that the approved budget was never printed into handbills.
Other cabinet officials including Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, and Civil Service deputy director, Dr. Leona Puchu Bernard have all at one point or the other, voiced concerns about their lack of information on what was actually in their respective budgets and went on public record acknowledging they did not know what was actually in their respective budgets. Clearly, such missteps on the part of Minister Konneh suggest that the Minister had something to hide. Such displayed lack of transparency runs counter to the 2009 Public Financial Law (PFM) which requires transparency in the handling of financial matters. But adherence to the PFM appears to be an insurmountable hurdle for the Ministry.
At the time of passage of the PFM law in 2009, the National Oil Company (NOCAL) for instance had a budget of US$2m dollars according to the GAC report. Almost 5 years later, the amount, for unexplained reasons, would soar to astronomical levels, over US$145 million, as reflected in the 2012-2013 budget. How NOCAL was able to generate such revenue is unclear since NOCAL was not listed in the 2012-2013 budget, although according to the records, NOCAL’s contribution to the 2013-2014 budget stood at US$8m.
Worse still NOCAL recorded in operational expenses, a total of US$138m which is reflected in the 2012-2013 budget. It is unclear whether this amount met legislative approval and there are strong indications that it did not meet legislative approval. As a matter of fact since President Sirleaf was elected not once has she included in any of her annual reports to the legislature, GOL’s total expenditure for the operating period. Reasons for this could partly be attributed to the Finance Minister’s inability to produce fiscal outturn reports as required by law.
Then there is the case of about US$15m contributed by the EU which was not reflected in the 2012-2013 budget. Owing to relentless media pressure the Finance Minister however provided some flip-flop explanation about how the money was accounted for. All of such non transparent transactions are without doubt contributing factors to the recurrent budgetary shortfalls being experienced.
Distinguished Liberian economist Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh in adding his voice to the debate, has identified several measures which he proposes to have government adopt in order to address the problem of recurrent budgetary shortfalls. The question is whether President Sirleaf can muster sufficient political will to tackle the problem head-on.
Amongst his proposals, he recommended a curb on corruption and the adoption of a more business friendly attitude especially towards Liberian business. It must be stressed that corruption hinders development and is a major contributory factor to growing income inequality and rising social tensions in the country. I fully concur with Dr. Tipoteh’s proposals but I would go a step further by citing examples of how the country is losing revenue through outright theft and pilferage as evidenced by the sidestepping of the PFM law.
In February 2013, for example an unsigned letter ref.# SMY-DMA/MPW-RL/13481 purporting to be emanating from the Ministry of Public Works is received in the office of the Minister of Finance on February 21, 2013. The letter contains a matrix of selected companies involved in road construction in Liberia and it reads:
Hon. Amara Konneh
Minister of Finance,
Ministry of Finance,
Dear Hon. Minister,
I present my compliments and write to request payment from National Claims in favor of the below listed contractors in the total amount of US$15,709,860.85 (Fifteen Million Seven Hundred Nine Thousand Eight Hundred Sixty United States Dollars Eighty Five Cents. (Note: the letter lacks a signature)
The letter was received in the office of the Minister on February 21, at five minutes past five on (5:05 PM) on February 21, 2013. Although the letter was unsigned, the Minister’s chief of office staff, Mr. Eddie Essieah, on February 22, 2013 wrote a note on it instructing the Deputy Minister for Expenditure to act and inform the Minister. The note reads “Pls take appropriate action and inform the Minister” the note concluded. Whether she did inform the Minister is unclear yet the fact that she proceeded to consummate the action strongly suggests the Minister was kept in the loop.
Further, the unsigned letter requests that payment be made from the budget on National Claims. It is important to understand that the budget on national claims is presided over by the Finance Minister proper and any payments from that budget cannot be done without the explicit authority of the Minister. It is within that context that Mr. Eddie Essieah’s note to Angela Cassell Bush can be explained.
On 27th February 2013, Deputy Minister for Expenditure, Ms. Angela Bush, in turn, penned on the unsigned letter of request, a note to Mr. Weah a junior official who I suppose is an analyst in her office. The note reads “Mr. Weah, for your review and action. I understand the source docs are already here with us. Thanks, DME”. To my mind the source documents the Deputy Minister for Expenditure (DME) had reference to would have included or should have included a Bill of Quantities (BOQ), PPCC approval letter etc.
But the source documents the Deputy Minister Angela Cassell Bush referred to were never submitted. At least there is no evidence that the Ministry of Public Works ever submitted those source documents to the Finance Ministry which would have enabled the Ministry to do proper analysis. Neither is there any hard evidence that the letter, unsigned as it was did in fact originate from the Ministry of Public Works. But the Ministry of Finance went ahead to raise a voucher as directed by the DME and it originated from the office of the Deputy Comptroller for Treasury Services, Mr. Dede Sandiman rather than from the office of the Comptroller-General proper.
The voucher was raised on the authority of a Memorandum dated March 1, 2013, sent by DME Angela Cassell Bush to the Deputy Comptroller for Treasury Services, Dede Sandiman. The Memorandum reads: “You are hereby instructed to raise a voucher in favor of Solid Rock Investment in the amount of USD2,161,996.80(Two Million One Hundred Sixty One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Six United States Dollars 80/100) representing thirty five percent (35%) payment of the contract value for the initial start-up and mobilization cost for the rehabilitation of the road from Buchanan in Grand Bassa County to Nyafuah Town in Sinoe County as per the attached documentations and charge same to budget code # 5010100-4-01-401-015000-100600-0451-0000-232121.”
The Memorandum continues, “A request for allotment was earlier made and obtained from the Department of Budget in the amount of USD2,161,996.80. By so doing this shall constitute your legal authority. Kind regards, attachment
Strangely, Mr. Dede Sandiman did not sign the voucher but was instead approved by one Ms. A. Moore who signed on Mr. Sandiman’s behalf. It appears Mr. Sandiman was for ulterior reasons kept in the dark. Also strange was the fact that contrary to standing rules, not a single official attested that the amount requested was “Within Appropriation” meaning that the amount requested was allocated in the approved 2012-2013 budget of the Ministry of Public Works. And despite the fact that such omission was glaringly obvious and ran contrary to accepted practices, DME Angela Cassell Bush appended her signature of approval to the voucher anyway.
Her (DME Angela Cassell Bush’s) signature of approval cleared the way for the preparation of a check in favor of the Solid Rock Investment Inc, a company whose history and performance record remains obscure, perhaps known mainly to Public Works officials. If for example funds had been allocated and approved in the Ministry of Public Works’ budget for 2012-2013, would there have been a need to pay from the budget on National Claims when in fact no work had been done to which a claim for compensation had been staked?
My answer is NO because the amount requested was for start-up and mobilization and there is no evidence showing that the Solid Rock Investment Inc. had met prequalification bid and PPCC requirements. Moreover there is no evidence showing that the Ministry of Public works had attached a “Bill of Quantities” (BOQ) to the source documents sent to the Ministry of Finance. Besides, the so-called letter of request did not bear any signature. But, as noted, the Ministry of Finance conveniently ignored such red flags and pressed ahead with the preparation of the check in favor of the Solid Rock Investment Inc. What were the motives for papering over such lapses? (A key point worth mentioning is the fact that the Budget on National Claims is under the direct control of the Minister of Finance.)
What these facts suggest is that there is strong evidence pointing to collusion at very high levels in government. For example, in order to facilitate the encashment of the check a letter dated March 6, 2013 ref# MOF/cag/03/13/612, was addressed to Mr. Richard H. Walker, Director of the Banking Department, Central Bank of Liberia informing him of a new authorized signature (that of Siafa Chowoe) to take effect as of March 6, 2013 to March 8, 2013 at which time his signature would expire. The letter reads thus:
Dear Mr. Walker,
We present our compliments and herewith introduce Mr. Siafa Chowoe, Deputy Comptroller General/Accounting Services Unit as an additional signatory to the Consolidated Account of the Government of Liberia (GOL) as an additional B signatory to the Consolidated Account of the Government of Liberia (GOL) beginning March 6, 2013 to March 8, 2013 at which time his signature will expire.
Siafa Chowoe Signature
Please accept the assurances of our highest esteem.
Sebastian Muah Angela Cassell Bush
Authorized Signer Authorized Signer
The check # 00114882 is dated 05 March 2013. A “Payment Authorization” dated March 7, 2013 with Ref# 20814/03/’13, prepared by Mr. Harris Folokula, authorized and signed by Siafa Chowoe, and Angela Cassell Bush was addressed to the Executive Governor, Central Bank. The Payment Authorization reads:
You are kindly requested to encash the below listed checks drawn on GOL Operations USD A/C# 02-205-300001-62, representing settlement of 35% installation contract value for the initial start-up & mobilization cost to rehabilitate Buchanan-Nyafuah Town High (sic) Bassa and Sinoe Counties-SC/MOF and debit the account accordingly:
Solid Rock Investment 14882 US$2,118,756.86
Siafa Chowoe Angela Cassell-Bush
Authorized Signer Authorized Signer
Although the Payment Authorization makes reference to several checks, the record shows a single check was encashed across the counter at the Central Bank by Mr. William B. Seton General Manager, Solid Rock Investment Inc. on March 7, 2013. Were the other checks subsequently issued and drawn on A/C# 02-205-300001-62? Perhaps not but only a forensic audit of that account will determine whether or not other checks were issued and drawn on the same account in question.
Several questions abound. First among them is why was the check not paid to the bank account of the Solid Rock Investment Inc. but was instead encashed across the counter? It can be recalled that following the failed attempt by some individuals in 2009 to fraudulently encash a huge check US$1.1m bearing the forged signature of President Sirleaf, a number of corrective measures were taken, one of which saw the resignation of the then Central Bank Deputy Governor Ethel Davies. Additional stringent measures were adopted barring over the counter encashment of large checks drawn on GOL’s accounts.
A critical question that arises therefore is who at the Central Bank authorized over-the counter encashment of check# 40014882 in the amount of US$2,161,996.80 contrary to standing rules and regulations and accepted best practice? Although the Payment Authorization of March 7, 2013 bearing the signatures of GOL Authorized Signers Angela Cassell Bush and Siafa Chowoe was addressed to the Executive Governor of the Central Bank, it remains unclear whether he or any of his deputies explicitly endorsed the action.
What is however clear is that the check was encashed over the counter and there is little doubt that payment of such a large amount over the counter would have claimed the attention of senior management given standing rules put into place in 2009 as part of measures intended to combat fraud. And it is not just surprising but strange that not a single individual in CBL senior management would, on the record, express disapproval to or question what was clearly a violation of standing operational procedures, beginning from the suspicious change of authorized signatures to GOL’s accounts at the Central Bank to the over the counter encashment of the check.
Otherwise, what was the basis for assigning Siafa Chowoe as an additional authorized B signatory over and above that of the Comptroller –General and his Deputy for Treasury Services and only for a period of 2 working days? What was the urgency? Was Finance Minister Amara Konneh apprised of this development, did he approve it and was he indeed unaware or aware of such a huge amount of money involved in the transaction and, if he was not aware what is the required threshold above which only the Minister can approve?
Next question why was the Comptroller-General and the Deputy Comptroller-General for Treasury Services apparently conveniently sidestepped and their authority and functions delegated to lower level functionaries? What were the motives for doing so? Was there any criminal intent? If not then why did Ms. A. Moore sign (pp) on Deputy Comptroller-General for Treasury Services, Dede Sandiman’s behalf when there are indications to suggest that he (Sandiman) was in the country but may have been kept in the dark?
Further why was the request for payment not vetted by Ms. Moore to ensure that funding was provided in the 2012-2013 Public Works budget and why DME Angela Cassell Bush did not insist that all procedures were fully complied with as required? Moreover how could she have failed to recognize all the red flags as they were and proceeded to act on a letter that was unsigned even though it had come down from Minister Konneh’s chief of office staff?
But this is just one example of quite a few of how money is being siphoned from the country’s treasury through ways and means that appear analogous and indistinguishable from daylight high-way robbery. Legitimate obligations are being shoved aside to accommodate illegitimate ones and it appears that the Budget on National Claims is the Finance Minister’s little Pepperbush which no one can touch without his explicit authority.
For the last few years for example the Ministry of Finance has been unable to settle legitimate claims owed to media houses, yet the Minister of Finance Amara Konneh would find it fit to endorse a fraudulent scheme that would see, “before 40 gods can skin a flea,” the country fleeced of over two million United States dollars. Who were all those that benefitted from this evil scheme? Currently, word is out that road construction projects around the country have come to a standstill because donors are refusing to infuse another dime until some US$100m is accounted for.
It cannot be considered surprising that donors would adopt such a stance because they are aware accountability institutions in the country are weak, the judiciary and public service officials corrupt and the political will to clamp down hard on corruption woefully lacking. It means therefore that our development agenda will experience serious hiccups and national stability and social cohesion compromised.
In closing I would urge President Sirleaf to take charge and restore sanity to the nation’s finances. In this regard, Finance Minister Amara Konneh and all those officials proven to have colluded in the perpetration of such massive fraud should be shown the door and be made to face criminal investigation and prosecution else she will take blame.
To Representatives Isaac Roland and others, I urge you to give Finance Minister Amara Konneh no rest! Do not grant him an inch or a quarter. He is a public servant and stands accountable to us the people through you our representatives. By insulting you and calling you all kinds of names, he has insulted us also and we therefore resolved to grant him no quarter until he can address your, our legitimate concerns.
And so my final word to Finance Minister Amara Konneh is - Put Up or Shut Up!
Author: By John H. T. Stewart, Jr., firstname.lastname@example.org