MONROVIA, Montserrado â€“ Two days after the U.K.-based corruption watchdog, Global Witness, released a new report alleging that former government officials benefitted from a tainted oil deal, the government says it is concerned about the allegations.
According to a Ministry of Information press release, although President George Weah has already commissioned a general concession review, including concessions in the oil sector, these allegations of bribery and misuse of office were deeply concerning.
The release revealed that the president has instructed Justice Minister Musa Dean to investigate the matter and submit a preliminary report to him within two weeks.
â€œThe president said if illegality is determined, those culpable will bear the full weight of the law. He urged all to cooperate,â€ the release stated.
In its report, Global Witness said the acquisition of Liberiaâ€™s 13th oil block by U.S. oil giant, Exxon was tainted by corruption and attacked U.S. anti-corruption laws.
The group had called on the government to investigate current and former officials who may have illegally received payments for the sale of the oil block to Exxon. It also recommends the investigation of Exxon and the Liberian-Anglo company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast to assess whether the companies broke the law, including anti-bribery statutes, and reporting requirements under the Liberian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
Implicated in the report are former Lands and Mines Minister Jonathan Mason, former Deputy Minister Mulbah Willie, who it said owned shares in Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast.
The report also accused NOCAL of paying US$210,000 to six officials who authorized the sale of the block to Exxon.
The officials include former NOCAL CEO, Randolph McClain; former National Investment Commission chairman, Natty Davis; former finance minister, Amara Konneh; former lands and mines minister, Patrick Sendolo; former NOCAL board chairman, Robert Sirleaf; and former justice minister, Christiana Tah. The officials received US$35,000 each.
Meanwhile, Konneh has officially responded to the report, dismissing Global Witnessâ€™ claims that he refused to respond to the U.K. based anti-corruption investigators on his alleged role in the oil deal.
He said at no point in time did he ever received a call or communication in any other manner from Global Witness to respond to issues raised in their report relating to him.
â€œI am, as always, willing to respond to queries relating to issues arising during my time of service with the government of Liberia,â€ he wrote The Bush Chicken in an official email response.
Konneh confirmed receiving the amount as reported by Global Witness but said it was a bonus package organized by NOCALâ€™s Board of Directors for those who worked hard and long to pull off the deal, which included the relevant line ministries and agencies of the government and the entire staff of NOCAL. He termed the deal as a â€œmajor milestoneâ€ achievement for Liberia.
â€œI call on NOCAL to release to the public the full list of everyone who received bonus payment from the Exxon negotiation,â€ he said.
According to Konneh, the transactions involving the acquisition of the oil block by COPL onward to Exxon were concluded in the public and reviewed by top U.S. lawyers to ensure that the transaction did not violate the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
â€œLet me state here categorically that while I accepted the bonus through an official NOCAL check as did all others; I, Amara M. Konneh, as Minister of Finance and Development Planning at the time, did not solicit or request a bonus or any other payment for the work that I did for the benefit of my country’s oil burgeoning hydrocarbon program,â€ he said.
â€œFurthermore, I served as Minister of Finance from February 2012 to April 2016 and during and after my term of service, I did not at any time solicit or receive money or favor from corporations or individuals seeking relationship with the Government of Liberia.â€
Konneh said he remains proud of his involvement in the Exxon deal, by ensuring that his country benefitted from US$50 million because of the transaction.
According to him, the amount is by far the largest amount that the country ever received for any of its offshore blocks.
â€œFor Global Witness to suggest that a US$35,000 bonus paid to each member of the negotiating team for ensuring that Liberia got US$50 million from the transaction is a bribe on a US$120 million deal is an insult to the reputation and integrity of the Liberian officials,â€ he noted.
Despite the reportâ€™s claims that the amounts received by the former officials more than doubled their annual salaries, the former finance minister said it was in line with global best practice to appreciate employees through bonuses when they achieve great results.
He said as finance minister, which made him a member of NOCALâ€™s board, he was effectively involved in the negotiation efforts to bring in ExxonMobil into the country as a means of boosting the countryâ€™s promising oil sector outlook and ultimately attracting other supermajors to participate in the development of its hydrocarbon resources.
â€œAfter many months of intense negotiations, we concluded a landmark deal that would see Liberia receive a non-refundable signature bonus of US$50 million, a first for a non-oil producing country,â€ he noted.