Monday, March 26, 2012

‘Big Fish’; Big Money? Conflict of Interest and Liberia’s Controversial Oil Block 13

Source: Front Page Africa

According to Oranto's contracts for offshore blocks 12 and 14, Prince Arthur Eze is the name of the company's chairman. The response stated the following:

"Go ahead and help them with the 1500 dollars".

The GW report noted that on 17 April 2007, Leigh-Parker co-signed a disbursement voucher authorizing the payment of US$1,500 to the Clerk of the House of Representatives for the payment of "lobbying fees for the ratification of contracts". On the same day she also approved the bank payment voucher for this money. James R Kaba – House of Representatives chief clerk – wrote a receipt documenting that he was paid this money.

In September 2010, according to GW, the Liberian Legislature ratified three "addenda" to Oranto's offshore blocks 11, 12 and 14,98 approving the 70% purchase of those Clockwise from top left: receipt, bank payment voucher and e-mail recording payment of US$1,500 for the ratification of Oranto oil contract. The crux of the problems surrounding Block 13 was evident when the Joint Committee on Ways, Means and Finance, Lands, Mines and Energy, State Enterprises and Public Accounts and Expenditure, bolstered by initial urging of the Executive Branch completed its report on the investigation on Block LB13, formerly owned by Broadway.

Executive versus Legislative: Similarities galore

Sources within NOCAL have disclosed that immediately after the sale of Blocks 11, 12 and 14 by Oranto Petroleum to Chevron, President Sirleaf issued a verbal mandate to the management of NOCAL to create a comprehensive local content policy that covers local participation from services and supplies to the awarding of drilling contracts to companies that have Liberian presence.

The source found it interesting that the President's mandates of last year and the recommendations made by the House of Representatives recently are almost identical in calling for a halt of all future bid rounds until the Petroleum Laws and the contracts have been properly revised, a review of all existing PSCs and a policy incorporating Local Content had been submitted and approved.

House in the mix

Representative Emmanuel J. Nuquay(Margibi County) wrote to plenary and flagged a number of concerns regarding Block 13: That the successful execution of the FY 2011/2012 national budget stood the risk of not realizing 27 million dollars captured and appropriated on account of block LB13; The NOCAL had so far failed to execute the mandate of the Legislature by not completing negotiations on block LB13 thus creating a risky revenue situation of 27 million in the FY 2011/2012 national budget; That the successful execution of the FY 2011/2012 National budget is being further undermined by the deposit of the proceeds of the Japanese food and aid product into an escrow account at CBL rather than the Government's consolidated account.

During the probe, the Joint Committee requested for all necessary documents associated with NOCAL, Block 13 and other contracts negotiated by the Executive Branch and ratified by the Legislature. Owing to the discovery of oil in Liberia the vast revenue boom that could be associated with said discovery, the joint committee specifically delved into an extensive review of NOCAL existing laws, and activities to establish whether there exist further threat to the country's share holding and revenues generally. After extensive review and investigation of NOCAL's activities, laws and existing contracts, the following were observed.

The probing committee observed that the delay in completing negotiations on Block LB13 was principally triggered by a foreign policy consideration of the Government and that the 27 million captured in the National Budget was based on proposal tendered by a Russian company, GAZPROM, which does not meet constitutionally derived foreign policy consideration of the Government for Block LB 13; That the present owners of Block LB 13, Peppercoast, favor COPL(Canadian Overseas Petroleum Ltd.) as the purchaser of Block LB 13; That even after NOCAL rejection of COPL on grounds that it did not have financial capability and technical competence to purchase Block LB 13, Peppercoast has re-submitted COPL and Exxon Mobile as partners to purchase Block LB 13; That the partnership between COPL and Exxon Mobil cures the defect in COPL status and NOCAL has accepted the purchase of Block LB 13 by COPL and Exxon Mobil; That NOCAL has indicated to us that it understands and accepts the mandate of the Legislature to generate not less than 27 million United States Dollars from the divestiture of Block LB 13.

Senate summons NOCAL, Too

The probing committee agreed with NOCAL that NOCAL-Peppercoast Petroleum Plc(formerly Broadway Consolidated Plc-Canadian Overseas Petroleum (COPL)-Exxonmobil continue with their divestment negotiations in full observance and compliance of All Provisions of the existing Petroleum Law of Liberia with the intent to generate revenue for the Government and people of Liberia in an amount not less than 27 (twenty-seven) Million United States Dollars. That the decision to award any future offshore oil block even after the laws are harmonized, be a National decision and channeled through a competitive bidding process. FrontPageAfrica has also gathered that the Senate has also summoned the NOCAL management for a hearing on Thursday to shed more clarity on the workings of the oil sector in the wake of numerous scrutiny in the wake of recent oil discovery in Liberia by African Petroleum. This is not the first time that officials of government have been tied to conflict of interest.

Tolbert Defended Mano Interest

Controversy also clouded the reign of Richard Tolbert, former head of the National Investment Commission who was the brainchild of the Mano River Resources' investment in Liberia even though he was a member of the Advisory Board of the Mano River Resource, Inc (MRRI), an exploration company on the Toronto Stock Exchange whose firm African Aura own 30 percent of the Putu Mining deal in Liberia.

A FrontPageAfrica investigation previously exposed Mr. Tolbert's link to Mano in an investigative piece in 2010. At the time of the report, Tolbert, in an email to FrontPageAfrica said he had stepped down from the Mano board because of his position as NIC chair but still maintained ties to Mano.

Said Tolbert at the time: "I should as a Liberian have a share, but I do not have any now, but I still maintain relations with the company. Tolbert said in keeping with the charter of the NIC he disclosed his ties to Mano before he took on the post. "I have recused myself from the proceedings. Advisor to the company, I had options."

But according to Section 4.1 Mineral Rights of the Mining Laws of Liberia:  No person shall conduct exploration mining or operations except in accordance with the mineral rights provisions under these provisions under this law. 4.2: States that the following persons or individuals shall not be eligible to be holders of mining licenses:

(a) An individual who is less than eighteen years old.
(b)  A person or individual who has been adjudged insolvent or bankrupt during the prior seven years under the laws of Liberia., or of any other country, except under a plan of reorganization approved by the courts of Liberia, or of such other country and permitted by the laws of Liberia, and with respect to which such person of individual is in compliance.
(c) A person or an individual who is not lawfully qualified to conduct business in the Republic.
(d)  An individual who has been convicted of a felony in Liberia or who has been convicted elsewhere of, or has pleaded nolo contendere to a crime, the elements of which would constitute a felony in Liberia.
(e) A person whose application does not meet the requirements of this law.
(f)  The President of Liberia, the vice president of Liberia, any member of  the national legislature, justices of the Supreme Court and judges,  directors of public corporations during the tenure in office. However,  in the event that any of the foregoing persons was already a Holder of a  Mineral Right prior to assuming the functions of the office, then such  person may either dispose of such Mineral Right or place such Mineral  Right in a Blind Trust.

Political will key, observers say

At the time, Tolbert insisted he was very proud that to be associated with Mano and Putu and was instrumental in keeping them in Liberia even after war and destruction. Said Tolbert: "They're not only involved in minerals but also gold and I feel very proud to have a multi-million dollar company doing business in Grand Gedeh which will help to bring jobs and other benefits to Liberia."

Tolbert added that he will work to make sure that Liberia reaps all of the financial benefits deserves from the Mano-Putu operations. It is not clear whether Tolbert put his Mineral Rights in a Blind Trust prior to becoming head of the NIC. Now no longer in  government, Tolbert and others are poised to reap millions from the recent sale to the Russian firm Severstal Severstal purchased Mano but Mano later changed its name to  Affero, making the same players relevant to a deal reaping millions  from Liberia but nothing in the country's coffers.

The Basman-Neyor Connection

FrontPageAfrica has also gathered that a similar scenario led to the recent dismissal of Christopher Neyor as head of the NOCAL. One of Neyor's first priorities upon taking charge of NOCAL in 2011 was to request a "Mandatory Sale" of block 13 by Broadway within a 90-day period.

At the time, industry observers were unsure what the terms of the "Mandatory Sale" were, not even our sources at the Justice Ministry. FrontPageAfrica was able to gather that Broadway was required to submit a list of potential buyers by April 23, 2011 and that NOCAL would review those companies and decide which company on the list met the necessary requirements.

But did not materialize because there is no "Mandatory Sale" stipulation in the contract signed between NOCAL and Broadway nor is there such a provision in the Hydrocarbon Laws of Liberia. Both the PSC and the Hydrocarbon Laws deal with breaches and default and the legal remedies for both. Unfortunately, sources confirmed to FPA that Neyor followed none of the noted procedures, left Justice Ministry out of the process and the fate of block 13 and Liberia's oil program in jeopardy.

Neyor's inaction during the proceedings, according to sources, prompted Chevron to become leery of Neyor, questioning his lack of knowledge and his recommendations for ways forward. The same sources at NOCAL and now some in the government have hinted that Neyor has been playing all sides to his own benefit and ultimate detriment. Both Neyor and board chair Clemenceau Urey have not returned text messages seeking clarity on the brewing controversy.

FrontPageAfrica also recently uncovered a communication dated November 17, 2011, in which Ghassan Basma, a Lebanese businessman and head of Africa Motors forwarded a letter to Chris Neyor, former Chief Executive Officer of the National Oil Company of Liberia on behalf of Gazprom, the Russian company with interest in Liberia's controversial oil block 13. The notification, according to documents in possession of FrontPage Africa laid the basis for what could be the buildup of a major cartel in Liberia's budding oil discovery operations. All the occurrences before the new management of NOCAL took their post.

The communications read: Dear Sir,  Hope ur doing well & congrates on the elections victory. I am forwarding to u enclosed letter for ur attention & the attention of the Hon Chairman of the Board & Board members. Rgds G Basma. Basma, FrontPage Africa has learned has been the point man for Gazprom Block 13 interest. Basma is no stranger to controversy.  In December 2006, the United Nations Panel of Experts reported that Basma was middle-man hoarding money for Edwin Snowe, listed on the United Nations travel and Assets Freeze ban.

According to the UN report, the Government of Lebanon reported two accounts in the Lebanese French Bank belonging to Mr. Snowe: one in Lebanese lira, which was closed, and the other a United States dollar account. After Mr. Snowe was put on the assets freeze list in August 2004, the dollar account had several transactions, both credits and debits, some of them for hundreds of thousands of dollars with a Lebanese firm, Creative Investment SAL (offshore). On 30 November 2004, the funds were withdrawn again through the assistance of Creative Investment, resulting in an overdraft of $141,768. Creative Investment is owned by Jamal Basma, Ghassan Basma and two other persons.

In his first official visit to a foreign country since being placed under the travel ban, for which he was given an exemption by the Sanctions Committee, the reported noted that, it was widely reported in Liberia that Mr. Snowe had been accompanied to Qatar by a Lebanese businessman who had formerly worked with the petroleum company of Jamal Basma. Mr. Snowe told the Panel that he had had to travel with the businessman as he did not speak Arabic and it was difficult to manage clearance at Dubai Airport if one did not know Arabic.

The connection between Neyor, Gazprom and the Lebanese businessman Bassam remains a mystery. Ironically, Sirleaf recently recycled Neyor as a member of the board of the Liberia Electricity Corporation. Adding more fuel to the controversy was the appearance before the House Energy committee recently of the NOCAL's management. Included in the session was Snowe and Adolph Lawrence, who is listed as a geologist on Broadway's payroll with US$7, 000 a month salary.

Lawrence, prior to his election as a Representative in the National Legislature, was documented by Broadway as its Country Manager at times and as its geologist other times. It is not clear whether he has severed ties since his election to the legislature, but it is clear that he played a major role on behalf of Broadway in Liberia and up until very recently, had a beneficiary stake in the sale of Block 13.

In 2005, the Coalition for International Justice pinned Basma as maintaining close contact with former President Charles Taylor and provided luxury vehicles for Taylor during his exile stay in Nigeria. Basma's Gazprom connection is throwing new light on an oil block mired in controversy from the start, beginning with the Broadway deal and Block 13.

In the wake of Sirleaf's recent statement regarding 'Big Fishes' and possible prosecution, political observers say if implemented, the move could deter current officials from using their positions of trust to cash in on a future oil or mineral sale although the jury is still out over whether the President has the will to follow the trail no matter who could fall prey to prosecution.

The need for post-war justice is a step toward lasting peace, stability and prosperity for Liberia, West Africa. Without justice, peace shall remain elusive and investment in Liberia will not produce the intended results. -Bernard Gbayee Goah 
 Also see: "Inside Liberia with Bernard Gbayee Goah" at:
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