Land Commission Ends in Tears & ‘Graft’

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Erstwhile Land Commission Chair Dr. Cecil O.T. Brandy stands accused for mismanaging entity's fund
Erstwhile Land Commission Chair Dr. Cecil O.T. Brandy stands accused for mismanaging entity’s fund

By Festus Poquie

 

The Land Commission’s  legal life span his finally expired, shutting down operations and leaving behind alarming financial liabilities rooted in apparent poor management and corruption.

Established via an Act of the Legislature on August 9, 2009, the commenced official operation in March, 2010 with mandate to propose, advocate and coordinate land policy, laws and programs in the country.

In January, 2015 President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf issued Executive Order No. 66 to extend its tenure, which has also expired.

But before then, the Commission would by September, 2015 become another vital government agency to experience serious financial crisis with palpable effects including rental arrears, salary arrears and layoff of several staff.

With documents and insider accounts the scope and nature of the entity’s financial crisis is becoming clearer. Dr. Othello Brandy, the entity’s Chairman is engulfed with claims of financial malpractices and irregularities.

There are accounts detailing his involvement in routine financial transactions including distribution of gasoline coupons, conflict of interest, unwise usage of entity’s fund, illegal deduction of fellow commissioners’ salaries and unilaterally effecting increment in his monthly salary.

It is explained that Chairman Brandy has been offering procurement contracts to a certain Charles Bonar who is considered his biological brother. The most noticeable of those procurement deals is an alleged US$25,000 contract, which is claimed to have been overstated and work not performed.

This paper has seen document in Which Dr. Brandy increased his salary from US$6,000 to US$8,000 with no evidence of presidential approval. Public official under the country’s Public Finance Management law are discouraged from paying themselves – that is setting own salary scale. President Sirleaf is on record for dismissing some top officials at the Liberia Institute of Public Administration for paying themselves.

While the erstwhile Land Commission may have scored relative success regarding the implementation of its mandate save the Land Rights and the Land Authority bills, the ordinary staff who contributed to such achievement are feeling the crunch of the financial crisis seemingly occasioned by mismanagement.

Before the shutdown, approximately 30 employees’ services were abruptly terminated in September, 2015 with no benefits. The situation to date remains the same. The employees are unpaid for six to nine months.

Prior to their redundancy the Land Commission’s finances were already in red and could not afford to pay staff’s salaries and benefits. There are also adverse effects from donor drawdown. Many aspects of the commission’s works were financed with foreign aid.

The New Democrat has seen documents wherein management has conceded to donors bringing to stoppage their financial assistance to the Commission.

There is no clear reason why donors have ended support to the institution whose oversight responsibility is crucial to peace and security judging from the many land disputes in the country. But some financial aid are tied to accountability of project fund and integrity of the institution administering the grant.

Chairman Brandy has not made himself available to respond to these issues with facts despite efforts from this writer to ascertain the validity of the allegations.

An appointment was made for interview within a one week period but was cutoff due to the Chairman’s reported attendance at a wedding ceremony. When it appeared certain that the interview with be granted on the eve of Decoration Day, this writer was ushered into the Chairman’s office only to be pleaded with to wait for 30 minutes because he (Dr. Brandy was working on a presidential requested documented).

Yet the 30 Minutes lapsed and turned into one hour thirty minutes. Daniela Warner a staff in the Chairman’s office was approached to establish contact with him regarding the interview but was determined he could go on with more time required since some senior staff have assembled in his office.

At that point it was agreed that the writer leaves and the office staff will place a call when the Chairman shall have concluded his presidential task. That call was not received and those placed from the writer registered unanswered.

But the Commission responding to The New Democrat’s previous publication in November, 2015 admitted to worsening financial crisis engulfing the institution with further confirmation that donors have discontinued financial aid.

A published press statement intended to counter this paper’s storysaid “the Commission is indeed faced with a crisis but contended it is not at the verge of collapse. Yet it conceded there is no money for “operating expenditures such as fuel, rent of office space, repairs and maintenance, stationery and supplies.

Land Commission explained “serious financial crisis” being experienced by the Commission is the result of inadequate budgetary support to the Commission and the termination of donor supported projects. As per the terms of the Agreements of Cooperation governing these projects. Like all Government ministries, agencies and commissions (MACs) competing for limited financial resources in the national budget, the Commission is indeed faced with a crisis, but not of the proportion to be labeled as on “a verge of collapse”, as the article seems to insinuate. It might interest readers to know that despite repeated efforts to engage the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and others, responsible for preparation and passage of the national budget, to ensure that adequate budgetary allotment be provided for the Commission, Government has consistently given less than what is minimally required to operate the Commission. Government of Liberia (GoL) funding to the Land Commission basically covers compensation for
the commissioners and administrative staff. The payment of salaries of employees of the Commission under GoL funding is current. Funds left after compensation for commissioners and administrative staff cannot take care of operating expenditures such as fuel, rent of office space, repairs and maintenance, stationery and supplies, to name a few essentials. Readers interested in the details of the Commission’s fiscal 2015/16 approved budget and those of previous fiscal years, may access the information through the website of the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP).

Contributing to the so called “serious financial crisis” is the fact that the core support provided the Commission with funding provided by the  the Government of Sweden through the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) ended in June 2015.

Accordingly, a total of twenty four (24) staff of the Land Coordination Centers, as well as a total of six (6) staff of the Technical Secretariat were issued letters of termination of their services in September 2015. The Commission indicated in the termination letters to the affected employees, its commitment to pay salary arrears for the months outstanding, once the Commission receives the final tranche of funds from UN-Habitat.   Festus Poquie