MONROVIA, Montserrado â€“ Philipbert Browne, the owner, and publisher of the Hot Pepper newspaper that broke the news about the missing billions in new banknotes on September 13, is due to appear before lawmakers today, Nov. 22, to testify about claims he has made that representatives received bribes to authorize the printing of the new notes.
In several interviews given to OK FM, Browne has demonstrated detailed knowledge of the events leading to the printing of the banknotes and their arrival in the country.
Speaking on Wednesday, November 14 on the radio station, Browne said an unnamed French company had originally been approached by the Central Bank to print the money. However, the company declined because of the relatively low quantity, Browne said, adding that the Central Bank later vetted De La Rue of the U.K. and Crane Currency, an American company that also operates in Sweden.
Crane Currency, according to Browne emerged as the winner after the vetting process.
He said Crane Currency earlier charged US$30 for every L$1000 printed but the amount was reduced to US$1 for every L$1000 after several discussions. The total cost of printing L$15 billion was US$15 million at US$1 for L$1000.
Notably, Browne said the French company had the sole right to print money for Liberia because â€œthe company previously printed the Liberty banknotes and as such, the rights could not be taken from the company and given the Crane Currency.â€
That prompted the need to institute a new set of currency â€œbecause the French company could not turn over its template to Crane Currency.â€
While the story of how Crane was selected, and the resulting new set of banknotes came about is certainly interesting, lawmakers are most interested in questioning Browne for his allegations that representatives accepted bribes to authorize the printing of the banknotes.
â€œIn order for the first batch of money to be printed, the lawmakers received bribe at the T5 Academy located in Nezoe, operated by Thomas Fallah, representative of Montserradoâ€™s fifth district, a member of the ruling Congress for Democratic Change,â€ Browne had charged.
â€œLawmakers at the lower house again received bribes for the second time at the CBL car park for the additional printing of L$10 billion.â€
Browne said several representatives became disgruntled because the bribe was unevenly distributed. He said those 15 representatives approached him and disclosed the alleged bribery.
The lawmakers had apparently told Browne that some received over L$1 million while others received only L$250,000.
â€œThe legislature does nothing without receiving bribes and almost all of the lawmakers in the 53rd legislature received the bribe to sign the resolution for the printing of the money,â€ he maintained.
Although the senators were likely involved in the bribery scheme, Browne said he has no information about their involvement because â€œthey are much more mature.â€
â€œThe senators do not talk and when you try to investigate an issue, they just run you in circles,â€ he added.
The alleged transactions between the Central Bank and lawmakers happened during the tenure of former House Speaker Alex Tyler.
After the arrival of the initial L$5 billion into the country, Browne said the Central Bank removed L$2 billion in mutilated banknotes from the market and replaced it with the new banknotes.
â€œThe CBL was now left with L$3 billion new banknotes in its vault,â€ he said. Browne noted that he could neither confirm nor deny what happened to the L$2 billion mutilated banknotes taken off the market but said he learned that it was carried to Bomi to be burned but that did not happen because of rainfall.
After the lawmakers were bribed for the second time, Browne said the remaining L$10.5 billion was printed by the Bank. He noted that the amount was actually L$10 billion, but â€œthe L$500 million was given to the CBL as gratis because of the excess money printed by Crane Currency.â€
The L$15.5 billion were brought in on 20 containers, he said, although the excess L$500 million came separately. Suspicion about the container containing the excess amount was raised after Lawrence Sirleaf, a CBL clearing agent, realized that it had overstayed at the Freeport of Monrovia, unusual because containers of money are not supposed to stay at the Freeport for 24 hours.
â€œThe CBL clearing agent has since left the country along with his entire family after receiving death threats about the missing money,â€ Browne said, although he did not provide details on who was making the death threats.
After news of the missing billions spread, Browne said President George Weah instructed Patrick Sudue, the inspector general of the Liberia National Police, and National Security Agencyâ€™s director, along with members of the governmentâ€™s Economic Management Team, to investigate the issue.
Browne, who could not independently confirm the whereabouts of the container containing the L$500 million, said he learned that it was removed from the Freeport to the CBL vault at Waterside.
Browne warned that the legislature was trying to change the narrative about the missing money to be a question of who authorized the printing. He said he believed without a forensic audit, it was difficult to determine exactly how much money was missing. The U.S. government has already paid for a forensic audit firm to look into the case.
Besides the missing money, Browne said his investigation has also established that there are about L$2 billion worth of counterfeit banknotes on the market. He called for the entire currency to be changed.
Browne said all those he spoke with during his investigation said they acted alone in bribing the legislature without the knowledge of former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or current president George Weah.
Browneâ€™s appearance today is sure to bring more information to the public.
Featured photo by Zeze Ballah