Liberia: US Envoy Hopes President Weah ‘Makes Good Decisions’ After Sanctions Placed on Top Officials
MONROVIA – Michael McCarthy rarely minces his words on issues of governance, the rule of law and corruption. The tough talking US Ambassador to Liberia raised eyebrows recently when photographs of him playing basketball with Liberian President George Manneh Weah and senior government officials made the trends on social media.
Critics were quick to conclude that Ambassador McCarthy had taken his foot off the pedal. On Monday, however, Ambassador McCarthy, in a media engagement with media executives, announced what many had been anticipating and what many quietly believed was long overdue, marking what appears to be the beginning of serious sanctions against corrupt officials in President Weah’s circle.
In a no-holds barred media briefing, the US envoy painstakingly announced the sanctions: “This morning in Washington, D.C., the United States Secretary of the Treasury placed sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on three Government of Liberia officials: Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, National Port Authority Director Bill Twehway, and Solicitor General Syrenius Cephus.
Inter-Agency Probe Triggered Sanctions
The Ambassador said the sanctions are a result of a rigorous inter-agency investigation, the Treasury Department determined that these three officials engaged in corrupt acts, and they are now subject to U.S. financial sanctions and visa restrictions. This is a decision that the United States Government does not take lightly because corruption is not a light topic. As Treasury Secretary Yellen put it, “Corrupt acts take resources from citizens, undermine public trust, and threaten the progress of those who fight for democracy.”
Following recent public statements by President Joe Biden Special Assistant Dana Banks, trumpeting the rising levels of corruption, Ambassador McCarthy added that in recent years corruption has worsened to the point that it is now the dominant issue in a bilateral relationship that would otherwise show far more promise.
This is why the Ambassador said, the US Treasury Department was forced to designate Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, National Port Authority Director Bill Twehway, and Solicitor General Syrenius Cephus on its sanctions list.
The sanctions fall under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and came after a rigorous inter-agency investigation, the Treasury Department which determined that all three officials engaged in corrupt acts, and are now subject to U.S. financial sanctions and visa restrictions. This is a decision that the United States Government does not take lightly because corruption is not a light topic. As Treasury Secretary Yellen put it, “Corrupt acts take resources from citizens, undermine public trust, and threaten the progress of those who fight for democracy.
Building upon the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, E.O. 13818 was issued on December 20, 2017, in recognition that the prevalence of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States, had reached such scope and gravity as to threaten the stability of international political and economic systems.
No Visas for Targeted Officials
According to the Treasury Department: “Human rights abuse and corruption undermine the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; have devastating impacts on individuals; weaken democratic institutions; degrade the rule of law; perpetuate violent conflicts; facilitate the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets. The United States seeks to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption, as well as to protect the financial system of the United States from abuse by these same persons.”
The sanctions on Minister McGill, SG Cephus and Port MD Twehway means that all property and interests in property of the targets that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC. “In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within the United States (including transactions transiting the United States) that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.
According to the Treasury Department, persons that engage in certain transactions with the individuals and entities designated today may themselves be exposed to sanctions or subject to an enforcement action. “Furthermore, unless an exception applies, any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of the individuals or entities designated today could be subject to U.S. sanctions.”
The power and integrity of OFAC sanctions derive not only from OFAC’s ability to designate and add persons to the SDN List, but also from its willingness to remove persons from the SDN List consistent with the law. The ultimate goal of sanctions is not to punish, but to bring about a positive change in behavior.
The sanctions listing comes just weeks after President Biden invited President Weah to the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, scheduled for Dec. 13-15 during which about 50 African leaders will join President Biden for a series of meetings.
The leaders will discuss pressing challenges from food security to climate change. “The summit will demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa, and will underscore the importance of U.S.-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities,” Biden said in a statement.
Addressing the media Monday, Ambassador McCarthy said the invitation extended to President Weah to attend a summit of African leaders is still in the cards despite the imposition of sanctions on three key members of his government.
‘Never Tell a President’ What to Do
Ambassador McCarthy said the sanctions are only targeting the individuals named. Asked whether he expects President Weah to dismiss the officials named, Ambassador McCarthy said: “I would never tell a president who is elected by the people what to do but I think the President knows what the best moves will be. I also want to emphasize that President was invited to Washington in December and nothing will change and that invitation stands because this is against individuals and not the country. I’m sure this will get the attention of the President. In some ways, this offers new tools and impetus to make good decisions for the country.”
For Ambassador McCarthy, the officials named Monday have been directly contributing to lingering problem of corruption in Liberia. “Rather than seeking ways to fight corruption for the betterment of Liberia, these individuals have consistently advanced corruption within this government, to the detriment of Liberia and all Liberians.”
The Ambassador expressed the hope that those Liberians who have been victimized by the corrupt activities of these individuals will take a small measure of comfort that we are helping to hold them accountable.
Said the Ambassador: “It is my hope that those who today are being victimized by the corrupt activities of these and other individuals will feel empowered to peacefully stand up to that corruption and say “no more.” It is my hope that Liberians do not view these sanctions as punishment of the country, but rather view them for what they are: an opportunity to chart a new course.”
Ambassador McCarthy said the U.S. government has taken the extraordinary step of sanctions because extraordinary steps are necessary to tackle the cancer of corruption in Liberia. However, he averred that it will be up to Liberians and Liberian leaders to take full advantage of this opportunity, and to make the kind of fundamental changes that perhaps are more possible now because of these sanctions than they were yesterday. “As they say in Latin, carpe diem: seize the day! Do not let this opportunity slip by and allow a return to the status quo. As the Department of State Spokesperson said in his statement today, “These designations reflect our commitment to implementing the United States Strategy on Countering Corruption, and it is our hope that they will help Liberia chart a different course forward.” I urge Liberia’s leaders to put nation before self in this effort to lay the groundwork for better days to come for Liberia’s future generations. The United States is a proud partner of Liberia and one of its oldest friends. Today I assure you, from one old friend to another, America stands ready to support Liberia in this endeavor.”
Chilling Reminder, More to Follow
Ambassador McCarthy reminded President Weah of his inauguration day pledge when he said in 2017, “It is my belief that the most effective way to directly impact the poor, and to narrow the gap between the rich and poor is to ensure that public resources do not end up in the pockets of government officials. I further believe [he said] that the overwhelming mandate I have received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in the public service. I promise to deliver on this mandate.”
Ambassador McCarthy said the sanctions are against individuals and not against the country, the party, or this administration. “Today, these three Executive Branch officials are being singled out. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, or GloMag, has only existed since 2017, so no previous Government of Liberia administrations could have had individuals sanctioned under GloMag. Today’s announcement does not exclude others from potential future sanctions.
Of course, full accountability in Liberia can only come from Liberians themselves.”
Recognizing corruption’s ability to corrode democracy, on June 3, 2021, Ambassador McCarthy recalled that President Biden established the fight against corruption as a core U.S. national security interest, stating “Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself.” Today’s actions are one of a series of actions taken to combat corruption in line with the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption. In addition, today’s announcement is in line with the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, announced by Secretary Blinken during his recent visit to South Africa. In that strategy, two of the four main objectives touch on the effort to reduce corruption.”
Since 2005, the State Department has committed more than $150 million to promote good governance and accountability in Liberia through our support of civilian security and justice sector programs. This funding enabled the Liberian National Police to develop a complaints and commendations system for the public to report good and bad policing and provided anti-corruption signage for courtrooms throughout Liberia. • In July, the U.S. Embassy sponsored ten Liberian judges and prosecutors to attend highlevel anti-corruption training at our West Africa Regional Training Center in Accra, Ghana.
The US envoy lamented that corruption under the Weah-led government is stealing from the poorest of the poor. “It blunts or negates the impact of all of our development projects, it defeats initiatives before they are even launched, and raises risk and uncertainty to drive away foreign investment,” the ambassador intoned.
Details of Sanctions
According to the US Treasury Department, during his tenure in government, Minister McGill has bribed business owners, received bribes from potential investors, and accepted kickbacks for steering contracts to companies in which he has an interest. “McGill has manipulated public procurement processes in order to award multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which he has ownership, including by abusing emergency procurement processes to rig contract bids. McGill is credibly accused of involvement in a wide range of other corrupt schemes including soliciting bribes from government office seekers and misappropriating government assets for his personal gain. He has used government funds allocated to other Liberian government institutions to run his own projects, made off-the-books payments in cash to senior government leaders, and organized warlords to threaten political rivals. McGill has received an unjustified stipend from various Liberian government institutions and used his position to prevent his misappropriation from being discovered. McGill regularly distributes thousands of dollars in undocumented cash to other government officials for government and non-government activities.”
The Treasury department said, McGill is being designated for being a foreign person who is a current government official who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.
Regarding Cephus, is the current Solicitor General and Chief Prosecutor of Liberia, the Treasury Department noted that the controversial Solicitor General has developed close relationships with suspects of criminal investigations and has received bribes from individuals in exchange for having their cases dropped. “Cephus has worked behind the scenes to establish arrangements with subjects of money laundering investigations to cease investigations in order to personally benefit financially. He shields money launderers and helps clear them through the court system and has intimidated other prosecutors in an attempt to quash investigations. Cephus has also utilized his position to hinder investigations and block the prosecution of corruption cases involving members of the government. Cephus has been accused of tampering with and purposefully withholding evidence in cases involving members of opposition political parties to ensure conviction.”
The Solicitor General, according to the Treasury Department, is being designated for being a foreign person who is a current government official who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.
Regarding Twehway, the Treasury Department noted that the current Managing Director of the National Port Authority (NPA), orchestrated the diversion of $1.5 million in vessel storage fee funds from the NPA into a private account. “Twehway secretly formed a private company to which, through his position at the NPA, he later unilaterally awarded a contract for loading and unloading cargo at the Port of Buchanan. The contract was awarded to the company less than a month after its founding. Twehway and others used family members to obfuscate their own involvement in the company while still benefitting financially from the company.”
Twehway is being designated for being a foreign person who is a current government official who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.