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Background checking: the Lindstrom debacle

When a Canadian investor,  Len Lindstrom,  received a favorable judgment by the Supreme Court of Liberia  against an agency of government recently, it brought to the fore  a nagging issue that has  bedeviled the government over the years; its  dismal inability to vet or background check foreign investors, as well as its own employees, especially those returning from abroad.

In this age of globalization and shrinking borders, background checks have become  a mission critical risk mitigating tool  to remove the veil of dishonesty from,  for instance,   a dishonest  job applicant,  or an investor  with a reported criminal tendency who is less than forthcoming about the source of his investment funds.  In 2009 Liberia was front and center in newspapers all over India involving a crooked government official who reportedly siphoned funds  for the development of his province to Liberia for investment in a mining concern.

Madhu Khoda , the chief minister of Jharkand, according to the papers, and two of his senior colleagues  stole millions  to buy a coal mine in Liberia and real estate in Hong Kong and Indonesia. Khoda and his assistants were later indicted for embezzlement, money laundering and bribery by the Indian government. I got to learn about the Khoda debacle from an Indian associate of mine in Pune, India, who casually asked me in an email if the Liberian government had done any due diligence on Koda to determine the provenance of his wealth. In fairness to the government, I told  Trilok at the time that the country was in financial dire straits and was bullish on foreign investments as a way of spurring job creation, besides, putting every investor under a microscope in terms of due diligence was beyond the government’s capacity. This was back in 2009. In 2014 this argument has lost its luster. A simple Google search can yield a bountiful harvest of information, as was the case with the Indian minister. His corruption story was the headlines for months on the web based version of India’s dailies.

That brings us to Len Lindstrom, CEO of Liberty International Mineral Corp., and of late, the darling of the Liberian media.  Lindstrom came to Liberia under the radar of detection during Liberia’s Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) . He came as a faith healer; his original mission was narrow, to save souls and heal the sick. He even boasted about curing Liberian children from terrible diseases, whether it is true or not, there has been no independent verification of Mr. Lindstrom’s healing hands. Fact is faith healer Lindstrom shed his church cassock and opted for the rugged gold mines of Liberia. He later admitted to completely divesting himself of the church, even to the point of giving up on attending church.  Mr. Lindstrom had completed a 360 degree turnaround.

His future was now inextricably linked to the mining sector of Liberia, but for a reason. He is reported, according to Canadian journalists, to have collected about $18 million from investors in his native Canada with a promise of a huge return on investments. Canadian columnist John Thomsen suggested in his column Rumors and Gossips that the former faith healer was a confidence man on the verge of orchestrating a scam. Thomsen published this email from a worried Liberty investor in his column:

This e-mail from a reader:

“I noticed today in your online, 'Rumours and Things', 2010, that people cannot get in touch with Len Lindstrom. I tried the phone number that is still appearing online - and sure enough - a lady answered who is not with Len.  She had the phone number for about 3 weeks. Can you tell me what you found out about Len? People – including me - have invested money into his organization. What do we do? Where do we turn for answers?”

Thomsen responded: “I don’t know what to tell you because in these kinds of schemes, money is always lost, and the perpetrator gone from the scene.”

If the Liberian government agency or agencies clothed with interfacing with investors had done a cursory Google search of Len Lindstrom they would have discovered that he had been sanctioned by Alberta Securities, the body that regulates trade in stocks and investments in his Canadian province. The sanction against Lindstrom and his company is on the company’s website at www.albertasecurities.com.

Of course, none of the sanctions or the doubts his fellow Canadians had about his honesty made it  into the pages of his seminal book on corruption in Liberia, cheekily entitled Corruption 101, Liberian Style. The book was focused on how he was wronged by the government, not how he allegedly “scammed” dozens, if not hundreds, of Canadian citizens out of their life savings.

The book , according to those who read it,  catalogued his trials and tribulations at the hands of heavy-handed, corrupt government operatives  whom he claimed shook him down and later  stripped him  off mining properties he legally acquired, and give them to another group of investors. According to Lindstrom, although this all began during the Interim Government of National Unity, the incoming Sirleaf government, however, made no efforts to right the wrong of its predecessor. That was until the recent intervention by Liberia’s Supreme Court.

It is a critical imperative that contractual and property rights are respected.  Nations that disregard those rights are universally panned, and are usually the ones in an advance state of dysfunction and rot, so it was quite easy to understand the court judgment in favor of Lindstrom.

Background checks are a commonplace scenario even in social situations within the U.S. It is not uncommon for a potential female lover to run a check on her new silver tongue Casanova, to ensure he is what he actually claims to be. The Been Verified app on Iphones, which does a background check on the fly, has seen an exponential increase in its user base, especially amongst female users.

In the world of corporate and governmental hiring it becomes significantly important. An anonymous philosopher once said, “the truth is out there waiting to be found.” Vetting, background checks and top grading are all part and parcel of the best practices of evaluating potential human capital. I run a boutique staffing agency, and deeply embedded in my evaluation of potential candidates for clients, is a regimen of background checking that includes criminal, educational, reference and credit check, of course with the permission of the candidate. Then comes the Top grading or behavioral interview which clients in my neck of the woods in California put potential hires through after the various checks have pan out.  Candidates may pass the educational, criminal and credit checks, but the behavioral interview is designed to bring out their true personality. You cannot fake this interview, which is paneled in some cases, by four or more professionals throwing situational questions at you. At some point during that interview your true personality comes to the fore. If you are a non-productive C player this interview will expose your weaknesses.

The recent history of some Liberians from America going home for employment with the government has been littered with lapses by the government and some companies to adequately screen these Diaspora job applicants, hence reports of  corruption, academic fraud, and even the case of a fugitive child molester in the employ of the government.

Clearly, the most egregious  and widely publicized example of the lapse  is the  case of the former head of the national airport , Ellen Corkrum, who is not only accused of financial improprieties, but  had a tendency of illicitly recording the privileged and confidential  conversations she had with government officials to prove, in essence, that the government was morbidly corrupt. These governmental actors assumed she was a trusted confidant, but she not only violated their trust and confidence, she placed them in the embarrassing position of being tarred and feathered in the court of public opinion, while she became the Mother Theresa of Liberian virtue, well, in the eyes of the Liberian media. 

Was this employee, given the critical responsibilities she was burdened with, adequately screened and vetted for the position of head of the nation’s major airport by the government’s Civil Service Agency?  The verdict is still out. I believe the application of  an intense vetting regime, including a  behavioral interview, not to mention a credit and reference check, would have saved the government the embarrassment of having an employee running wild with a hidden tape recorder. Her character flaws would have come through during the behavioral interview, or her credit report would have given the government a snapshot as to her fiscal aptitude as well as her overall integrity.

It’s the embarrassment to government that the lack of due diligence of investors and potential employee poses; the Lindstrom book could have devastating consequences to private/public sector investment, costing the country millions. It could be used as a reference point   and  a turn-off to investors who will opt to take their business elsewhere, because the focus of the book is the government’s refusal to respect contract rights. Corkrum’s recording gives the impression of dysfunction, backstabbing and backbiting within government. A Lindstrom, with a government bashing book underscoring his victimhood at the hands of the Liberian government, or an Ellen Corkrum with secret recording devices could be avoided in the future, if a little bit of  due diligence can be applied by the likes of the Civil Service Agency or the National Investment Commission, as well as the Liberian news media.

JM Cassell is a former features Editor of the New Liberian newspaper.

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