(A Commentary by the Liberia News Agency)
A few months ago, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked a young and talented Liberian, Amara M. Konneh to accept the daunting challenge of taking over the Ministry of Finance, driving her economic reform agenda, restoring discipline in government’s fiscal management, and leading her fight against corruption.
Though huge and challenging, Konneh answered the call of country. He accepted the task with confidence in himself and in the team he assembled to help him do the job. He promised the President he would do his utmost best to deliver.
Immediately after taking office, Konneh and team put in place several measures to curtail corruption. He announced, “Fellow Liberians and colleagues, in the discharge of these duties, we will be forced to make some uncomfortable and unpopular decisions against relatives and friends. But let me inform you fellow Liberians that these decisions will be in the supreme interest of the Liberian nation and people.”
Konneh’s corruption trap soon started catching corrupt individuals who have been abusing the good nature of the system. In April, Minister Konneh dismissed eight senior staff for collective negligence for posting multiple direct deposits to single accounts at Ecobank. Their action led to an estimated US$11.2 million loss to Government. The Justice Ministry is now prosecuting those involved.
Later, he caught the second batch of pillagers: “Today, it is with heavy heart but patriotic relief that I announce to the Liberian people that after careful investigation, review and recommendation, the firing of six (6) revenue collectors from the Bensonville Collectorate and four (4) collectors from the Marshall Collectorate. These collectors, separately and collectively, decided to use Government Revenue for their personal expenses. Even though they admitted and agreed to repay the funds, the fact remains that they violated the public trust and therefore MUST be relieved of their posts and duties. The investigation reveals that these collectors at the Bensonville Collectorate received LD$1.68 million to be deposited into Government Account but instead depositedLD$1.3 million and decided to use the LD$380,000 to take care of personal expenses. The Marshall Collectors also used LD$98,300 of Government revenue and are unable to account for nearly 143 pieces of LD$ receipts and 68 pieces of US$ revenue receipts. Most of them, except for one of them who is deceased, have repaid the money in full. This repayment does not however justify their breach of the public trust.”
Tax collectors accused and immediately fired from the Bensonville Collectorate were Solomon Toe , Tuah Karpeh, Patricia Moulton, Alfred Manley, Arthur G. Manley, and Cornelius K. Kpardeh. Those from the Marshall Collectorate were Augustine Warzuah, Ranoe Konah, Arthur Brown, and Frank Ware.
At the time of the announcement of the Bensonville and Marshall scandals, Minister Konneh warned: “Let it also be known that these actions will be extended to every collectorate and section of the Ministry of Finance and entire Government of Liberia. I hope the message goes loud and clear that there will be zero tolerance for acts of corruption and abuse of public trust.”
True to his warning, the Finance Minister (again) made the following startling revelation yesterday, Thursday, September 20, 2012:
“Just this Tuesday evening, we welcomed the President of the African Development Bank, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, to our beloved country for a two-day visit. Dr. Kerburaka’s arrival was a testament to the level of progress we have made as a nation since the cessation of our civil conflict, and he was unequivocal in noting the significant degree of transformation that our country has undergone since his last visit to Liberia in 2006.
“But, while we were celebrating President Kaberuka’s announcement that the African Development Bank will support the paving the Fish Town to Harper Highway; and while we were soliciting additional support from the Bank and from other development partners to lift our country and people, some of our fellow countrymen were engaged in unpatriotic and fraudulent acts intended to undermine the progress we are making.
“Let me be quick to mention here that breaking this kind of news is uncomfortable for me, as a young man and as the coordinating minister of the economy; but it is also my patriotic duty, which I am honored to perform for the love of my country.
“Fellow compatriots, several months ago I indicated to you that our public financial management system was under attack and unless we made tough and radical decisions, we risk losing our collective integrity and surrendering the public treasury to a few unethical and unpatriotic Liberians.
“And this we MUST not allow to happen! Even if these kinds of actions may be unpopular we must take them to send a loud and clear message that we do not condone dishonesty in the conduct of public service.
“What I am about to tell you today will make you as angry as it has made me and my colleagues. It so perplexed and bewildered us that we wondered how someone could so easily betray the national trust. Imagine the task we have ahead of us: to raise US$672 million to finance our national development programs; to find money to raise civil servants’ salaries; to accelerate the rehabilitation of the hydro that will reduce the price of electricity; to build the critical roads that will connect our cities and markets; and to support schools and health centers.
“In the context of these national imperatives, fellow Liberians, we have discovered that some of the tax collectors assigned at our office in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, decided to collectively defraud Government of its much needed resources.
“Our preliminary investigation has established that Mr. Daniel B. Grigsby, our Deputy Revenue Collector in Buchanan, succeeded in defrauding the Government of more than US$325,000. This scheme took place over a period of five (5) months – from May to September 2012.
“Ladies and gentlemen, on June 4, 2012, Mr. Grigsby wrote to one of our largest tax payers informing them that the Government has decided to decentralize revenue collection, and instructing the company to remit all 6% withholding taxes for the government to the account ofIntegrated Management Consultants, a company he set up. The tax payer, without any due diligence and reference checks, decided to take instructions from a low level staff of the Ministry of Finance and deposited tax dollars into the account of a private entity.
“The EcoBank account of Integrated Management Consultants is 0021034719926101. It just so happens that the tax payer also has EcoBank as its bank; therefore monthly wire instructions were given to EcoBank to transfer thousands of dollars to the account of the Integrated Management Consultants. There is nowhere in the world where private accounts are used as a legitimate means of paying government taxes. This should have been a red flag for the tax payer, but they ignored this and proceeded with this scheme. In this case, those taxes are still due from the tax payer, because they acted unprofessionally. For a multi-national company to take instructions from a low level staff to deposit tax dollars into a private account is questionable.
“Moreover, it turns out that the private company into whose account government tax dollars were deposited is owned by Mr. Daniel B. Grigsby. It turns out further that Mr. Daniel B. Grigsby is the only signatory to the account of Integrated Management Consultants.
“This account, the investigation shows, was established on May 17, 2012. On May 18, 2012, an amount of US$34,107.32 was deposited into that account, and Mr. Grigsby wasted no time to withdraw the entire amount on the same day.
“From May 18th to September 10th, 2012, the tax payer consistently deposited tax dollars into that non-government account. In fact, at a certain point, Mr. Grigsby closed the first account and opened a new one, still in the name of Integrated Management Consultants.
“Fellow Liberians, for a single person or group of persons to defraud Government of more than US$325,000 over the span of five (5) months is unacceptable. Before I announce to you the actions that I will take in response to these criminal activities, let me explain how the fraudulent enterprise was arranged by Mr. Grigsby and his cohorts:
“Firstly, the amount constituting the 6% withholding tax, which the taxpayer deposited into the Integrated Management Consultants’ account, is composed of taxes withheld by the taxpayer from other companies that perform services for the taxpayer. Every month, the taxpayer is supposed to withhold a specific amount from their subcontractors, pay taxes to the Government on behalf of those companies, and give them flag receipts issued by the Ministry of Finance.
“Instead of being depositing into the Government’s account, these withheld monies were paid to Mr. Grigsby’s company. Mr. Grigsby would receive United States (U.S.) Dollars from the taxpayer, then proceed to the Ministry of Finance and deposit Liberian Dollars (LD) instead of U.S. Dollars. For example, on August 9, 2012, the taxpayer deposited US$87,528.58 to Mr. Grigsby’s account. Our tax administration record shows that Mr. Grigsby, on August 13, 2012, deposited the sum of LD$87,528.59 into the Government’s consolidated account, instead of US$87,528.58.
“What we further observed is that Mr. Grigsby then proceeded to the World Trade Center on Gurley Street to tamper with the Government receipts so that they would show that his deposit was made in US$ instead of LD$. He then gave this corrupted receipt to the taxpayer.
“Now, because Mr. Grigsby is the person who is responsible to check on this taxpayer and determine whether he has paid the correct taxes, there was no way for us to detect his fraudulent activities, or to know the extent of what was happening until now.
“I have asked my staff to walk you, members of the press, through the sequence of events of the criminal scheme, and to show you how smart some of our fellow citizens are, to the detriment of our country.
“Fellow Liberians, Mr. Grigsby and his colleagues have chosen the path of dishonesty. Now we must let them know that we will neither tolerate their actions, nor let them go with impunity.
“We would not easily have unearthed this criminal enterprise were it not for another patriotic Liberian who saw the illegitimacy of the activities I have described, and decided that the right thing to do was to blow the whistle. Because of that person’s action, we were able to save the Government US$325,000.
“Fellow Liberians, let me inform you in this public manner that this hero and patriotic Liberian will be justly rewarded, in adherence to our whistleblower law. I have authorized the payment to the whistleblower in the amount of US$16,250, representing 5% of the recovered amount.
“We will ensure that the whistleblower’s identity is protected, as required by law. We will encourage further whistle blowing; and if the information provided leads to the recovery of monies or valuables, the whistleblowers will be justly rewarded.
“Now, therefore, I am today taking the following actions to protect the integrity of Liberia’s public financial management system:
“With immediate effect, Mr. Daniel B. Grigsby is hereby dismissed from the Ministry of Finance. He has been turned over the Ministry of Justice for immediate prosecution. The multitude of evidence against him is overwhelming, to the extent that we believe Mr. Grigsby can be convicted within a matter of hours.
“Additionally, the following employees of the Ministry of Finance are suspended without pay, with immediate effect, and have been turned over to the Ministry of Justice for further investigation:
1. Yeallah Ndorbor, who is the former Senior Tax Collector at the Buchanan Collectorate where this incident occurred; and
2. Samuel Seidu, who is the current Senior Tax Collector at the same Buchanan Collectorate.
3. Mr. Alvin Johnson, who is a former revenue agent at the Kakata Collectorate.
“The fact that none of these two Senior Tax Collectors were able to uncover this scheme, when this large tax payer falls within their jurisdiction, is suspect. We believe that they are either involved in these acts, or were grossly negligent in the discharge of their duties. In the latter case, I have authorized the Deputy Minister for Revenue to review their performance and report to me within a week.
“In order to further understand the problem, we have invited some other persons of interest who are external to the Ministry of Finance, but important to the investigation.
“Fellow Liberians, please continue to remain assured of our fight to weed the public financial management system of both negligent and fraudulent elements. While we remove these elements, we are also moving with deliberate speed to institute stronger control measures that will prevent similar abuses and detect even the slightest attempts at fraud.
“Distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the press, we are counting on you to inform the Liberian people that this is not a witch hunt. This is an honest and humble fulfillment of the trust and confidence placed in us by the President and the Liberian people.
“I want to thank you for your attention, and solicit your partnership in this fight against fraud, waste and abuse. You, the people and tax payers are key actors in this fight against corruption. We can promise that, if you give us a lead, we will never expose you and you will be duly rewarded. This is the right way to clean up our country.
“To our colleagues who are managing public resources, please remember that the Liberian people are watching you, and so are we. Remember, it is Daniel Grigsby today, but you could be next. We are watching you. Wherever the abuse of public resources is detected and proven, we will act justly and decisively.
The information above does not need to be a rocket scientist prove that despite the huge challenges in cleaning up a very dirty Finance Ministry he inherited, Minister Konneh is making headways, and he needs the support and prayers of all patriotic Liberians to succeed.
We say bravo to Minister Konneh and his team of gallant and patriotic Liberians. Good job..! Keep it up!