-Court throws out motion, exonerates Ellen
A Criminal Court "A" judge at the Temple of Justice Friday trashed a request for separate trial by the former Chairman of the Board of the National Oil Company of Liberia or NOCAL , Mr. Clemenceau B. Urey, Sr., indicted on multiple corruption charges at the oil company during his tenure.
The court also exonerated President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf , from allegations by Mr. Urey in his request for severance that his decision to commit an alleged act of bribery and criminal conspiracy was sanctioned by the verbal instruction of the President.
Urey was indicted along with seven others on allegations of economic sabotage, bribery and criminal conspiracy by the Grand Jury of Montserrado County. The indictment follows an investigation by the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission or LACC into the management of funds at the oil company.
The indictment says that during the period of 2007 and 2010, several thousands of United States Dollars were dished out of the coffers of NOCAL and paid to members of the 52nd Legislature as “lobby fees” for the ratification of several oil contracts. The indictment also says that they jointly took the decision as the Board to authorize the payments of these amounts to the legislature.
The court says that from the arguments of Urey, it is not convinced that the defenses he propounded are applicable based on the records of the case, which would serve as a basis to grant him a separate trial.
The court said its records are replete with admissions from Urey and Co-Defendant Fodee Kromah that the board met, discussed the issue of the payments and by a formal resolution instructed the management to pay the lobby fees to the legislature.
“These admissions are contained in the statements of Urey and Fodee Kromah before the LACC”, the court said, adding that minutes of the board also reflect that the board discussed the issue and the payment was agreed upon at board meetings.
The court in its ruling also noted that Urey's argument that he is entitled to immunity because he was given verbal instruction by the President without more cannot be sustained.
It says that even assuming that the President did give such an instruction, Urey can only legally carry out instructions from the President in a matter in which discretion is by the Constitution or by law lodged in the President. "This matter is not one in which discretion lies with the President. Section 25.9, 1LCLR; Wiles V. Simpson, 8 LLR 365" it said.
The court also observes that the plea of Urey is contradictory. On the one hand, it says Urey advances the argument that he is immune because he acted on instructions and on the other hand he argues that it was the Board’s decision but he did not vote.
“This court therefore holds that the Movant is not entitled to a separate trial, and sustains the resistance of the Prosecution. “WHEREFORE AND IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, it is the ruling of this court that the Motion for Severance is hereby denied and the resistance thereto is hereby granted,” the court ruled.
On April 8, 2015, Urey filed a Twelve (12) Count Motion, contending that pursuant to Section 16.10 of the Criminal Procedure law, his defenses are separate and different from those of the other Co-defendants and hence as a matter of law he should be severed from the other co-defendants.
Section 16.10 of the Criminal Procedure Law provides that “if it appears that a defendant or the government is prejudiced by a joinder of offenses or of defendants in an indictment or by a joinder for trial together, the court may order an election or separate trial of counts, grant a severance of defendants, or provide whatever other relief justice requires.”
Urey argued that he acted on the verbal instructions of President Sirleaf to dish out cash, and that as Chairman of the Board of NOCAL, he was only permitted to vote in cases where there was a tie.
He said since there was none in this case, he did not vote to approve any payment to the Legislature, insisting that he should not be jointly tried with other Co-defendants. He also relied on an affidavit filed by another co-defendant Fodee Kromah in support of his contention.
But state lawyers say Urey's plea is self-serving, inconsistent and contradictory. In an 11 count resistance, Prosecutors thrashed the arguments contained in Urey's request specifically in respect to the blanket and self-serving allegation that he acted on the instruction of the President.
Prosecution argued that the affidavit filed by the other co-defendant is self serving since the very Co-defendant who executed the affidavit had written in his statement before LACC that “persistent requests to pay lobbying fees resulted to a board resolution to give in to the demands of the lawmakers; which means that the board voted and a resolution was passed.
Prosecutors quotes a NOCAL Board minutes dated May 22, 2007, saying: “The initial amount approved by the board for lobbying fees was US$50,000. An additional amount of US$26,000 was paid out of NOCAL’s account as lobbying fees because of the urgency of the matter”. The Chairman, Mr. Urey authorized the additional payment without the prior approval of the Board. For this, the Chairman apologized to the Board”.
Prosecution further argued that Urey's plea is contradictory because on one hand, he contends that he acted upon the instruction of the President and on the other hand, he argues that the approval was done by the board but he did not vote.
The Prosecution argued that under the parole evidence rule, oral testimony cannot be introduced to contradict written instruments; that the written statement of co-defendant Kromah, that the decision as to whether or not to pay “lobby fees” was squarely driven by the Board through a board resolution, evidences the fact that Kromah’s affidavit, without more is self-serving.
The court agrees with Prosecution's argument that Urey and Kromah seek to set a precarious precedent in this case. That is to say, all that an indicted official or former official of Government needs to produce before a court when indicted is an affidavit executed by himself/herself that it was the President who instructed him to commit a crime without more, and he/she would expect the court to set him apart from other Co-Defendants merely because of this allegation without any showing of the instruction said to have been given.
The trial of the case is expected to be heard during the May Term of Court. The case comes at a time when the government is seriously engaged in the fight against corruption.
It can be recalled that the President Sirleaf in one of her addresses to the Legislature termed corruption as a vampire that was sucking the economic development of the country, and pledged her full support to the speedy prosecution of corruption cases.
The Ministry of Justice, which is the prosecuting arm of Government, has placed serious emphasis on the prosecution of corruption. This case is not the only one. It can be recalled in 2014, the Grand Jury indicted Mr. Moses Wogbeh, former General Manager/Forestry Development Authority (FDA) and others for several offenses, including Economic Sabotage and Criminal Conspiracy for unauthorized granting of PUPs.
By Othello B. Garblah