By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman…..
Details of an ongoing court proceeding in New York against Sierra Leone’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations are likely to reveal how senior government officials in Freetown have been using the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and its diplomatic missions to transfer millions of dollars to international destinations for supposed purposes of infrastructure maintenance, including the renovation of diplomatic buildings and offices. Evidence now points to the fact that most, if not all, of these infrastructural projects are never actually undertaken, and the monies may have been diverted and used for other purposes.
Documents obtained by the Africanist Press, including evidence of wire transfers and other banking transactions, show that despite the transfer of over US$3.2 million in June and September 2019, for the renovation of the country’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York, no substantial work has been done on the renovations, raising questions regarding the potential use of the funds that were transferred for the project since 2019.
Africanist Press discovered that at least Le30.2 billion (over US$3.2 million) was transferred between 14th June 2019 and 5th September 2019 from the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry to the Sierra Leone Mission in New York for renovation and construction work at the Chancery Building in New York. We tracked at least 8 wire transfer transactions totaling Le 20,070,845,946 (about Le 2.1 million) by Foreign Affairs officials between 24th May 2019, and 24th September 2019, alone. These transactions included two SWIFT transfers (FT1916454098 and FT1924808290) in the amounts of Le7,665,845,933.49 (about Le800,000) and Le9,329,999,975.14 (about US$1 million) carried out on 13th June 2019, and 5th September 2019 noted specifically as payments towards the renovation of the Chancery Building of the Sierra Leone Mission in New York. Almost two years later, the renovation work on the Chancery Building remains stalled.
Our investigation discovered that the supposed renovation project was contracted to a New York based company, Empire Group LLC. Empire Group describes itself as a “leader in client service philosophy, using modern construction technology, and contemporary management skills that deliver the highest quality of building through general contracting, construction management, and design-build services.”
Located in New York City, Empire Group was incorporated in the State of New York in 2014 and David Montesi serves as President of the company. According to paperwork filed with the New York Department of Buildings (NYDOB), Empire Group was contracted to renovate the Sierra Leone Mission headquarters in New York, including the building of two additional floors. Montesi obtained construction permits from the NYDOB to conduct the renovations in June 2019, but no real progress has been made. Investigations on the construction site in New York reveal that substantial work has not been done and the renovations remain incomplete. Specifically, the proposed top two floors are not fully built.
Our investigations further revealed that the renovation project is already the subject of litigation in a United States District Court in New York. Neighbors have lodged 21 complaints against the renovation project to the NYDOB, which administers the New York City Construction Code. Two neighbors have sued both the Sierra Leone Mission and Empire Group LLC on allegations of unlawful and incompetent efforts to renovate and expand the Sierra Leone Mission’s headquarters in Manhattan, New York. They also accused the Mission and Empire Group of violating numerous provisions of the New York City Construction Code.
Court documents reviewed by the Africanist Press show that the lawsuit filed by Janet and Joseph Harvey (the immediate neighbors of the Sierra Leone Mission in NYC) is currently being heard at the Southern District Court of New York before the Honorable Edgardo Ramos. The couple alleges that the construction poses a clear and present danger to their health and to the health of the public and has significantly harmed their home. The Harveys own a residential townhouse located at 243 East 49th Street in Manhattan, New York City, next to the Sierra Leone Mission headquarters at 245 East 49th Street.
“The unlawful construction efforts at the Sierra Leone Mission headquarters, which is located next to the Harveys’ home pose an immediate danger to the life and safety of the Harvey’s and other members of the public through, among other things, fire, flying debris, carbon monoxide poisoning, mold and vermin infestation,” lawyers representing the Harvey’s state in a complaint filed on May 14, 2021.
The Harveys say that despite multiple requests, no schedule for completion of the renovations has been provided by the Sierra Leone Mission and its contractor, Empire Group LLC. Inspections of the Mission’s headquarters conducted by a mechanical and structural engineer, Matthew Bendix on behalf of the Harveys on March 18, 2021, and April 8, 2021, states that the renovations performed to date are neither viable nor safe.
Bendix is the President of Bendix Engineering, a construction company that designs, manages, and implements engineering projects in New York City. Bendix has worked on 40 townhouse projects in New York City in the course of the past ten years. Bendix was retained by the Harveys to assist in identifying and remediating damage to their residence caused by the ongoing renovation at the Sierra Leone Mission headquarters.
“When I arrived at the Mission’s property, I observed that the construction didn’t comply with any of the Sections of the New York City Building Code. There was debris strewn all across the construction site, including heavy building materials, flammable debris, garbage, and fire extinguishers. None of the debris was secured,” Bendix said in his deposition supporting the Harveys complaint against the Sierra Leone Mission and its contractor, the Empire Group LLC.
Documents reviewed by the Africanist Press further show that the Harvey’s tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the impasse in an effort to avoid judicial intervention. On April 19, 2021, after the Harvey’s and the NYDOB’s multiple failed attempts to get the attention of the Sierra Leone Mission and Empire Group, the NYDOB issued a partial “stop work” order at the Mission’s headquarters as a result of serious Building Code violations, and ordered that steps be taken to secure the Harveys roof. The NYDOB also imposed US$61,865 in fines for the violation of the Construction Code. On May 7, 2021, the NYDOB returned to the Mission’s headquarters to conduct a follow-up inspection. At the inspection, the NYDOB found that no steps had been taken to secure the Harveys’ roof and the imposed fines remain unpaid in direct contravention of its order of April 19th, 2021.
“It is clear that the Mission and Empire Group do not respect the DOB, their neighbors, or the public health, and they do not intend to fix the serious issues at the Headquarters, even in the face of stiff financial penalties,” lawyers representing the Harveys wrote, adding that the Sierra Leone Mission and the Empire Group are unable or unwilling to respect the Construction Code or the DOB.
“They have no intention of complying with the orders of the DOB, and are undeterred by financial penalties,” the lawyers state. The lawyers say the building site at the Headquarters is a fire hazard and that it is in shambles and not being properly maintained or safeguarded.
“It is causing extremely hazardous conditions in violation of Sections 3303 and 3309 of the Building Code,” they said, adding that only a judicial order will compel the Sierra Leone Mission and Empire Group to act.
The Harveys are demanding compensation from the Sierra Leone Mission in New York in the amount of at least US$155,020, together with pre-judgment and post-judgment interest, attorneys’ fees, including the costs of their lawsuit and such other relief as the Court may order.
They also demand “punitive damages against Empire Group and Montesi for their egregious disregard of the Harveys’ safety, wellbeing, and ability to live in their own home and for injunctive relief against all Defendants.”
However, court documents further show that a summons dated 19 May 2021 was issued to Sierra Leone’s Foreign Affairs Minister, David Francis giving notice of a lawsuit filed against the Permanent Mission in New York.
“Within 60 days of service of this summons on you, not counting the day you received it, you must serve on the plaintiff an answer to the attached complaints or a motion under Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The answer or motion must be served on the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney,” the court notice reads, noting that should the government of Sierra Leone fail to respond, judgement by default may be entered against its Mission in New York.
“You must file your answer or motion with the court,” the notice signed by the Clerk of Court, G. Pisarczyk stated.
Africanist Press was unable to verify whether the government of Sierra Leone has submitted a response to the Notice of Summons as phone calls both to the Sierra Leone Mission in New York and Foreign Affairs Ministry office in Freetown went unanswered. David Montesi, President of the Empire Group, on the other hand, says he could not respond to requests for interviews by Africanist Press without clearance from officials at the Sierra Leone Mission in New York.
However, the Empire Group and David Montesi have already hired Attorney Christopher Slowik of Klein Slowik PLLC in New York as their legal representative on this matter. In a letter dated 19 May 2021, Chris Slowik requested a two-week extension from the Court to be able to file papers on behalf of Empire Group and Montesi.
“Due to the need to acquaint ourselves with the facts of the matter and the technical nature of the issues pertaining to the New York City Building Code, I respectfully submit that it would not be possible, in this short period of time, for Empire Defendants to interpose papers of any substance, or to engage in meaningful discussions in opposition to the motion, or possible settlement thereof. I respectfully request an extension of time for Empire Defendants to file papers in opposition and an adjournment of the return date of the motion,” Christopher Slowik wrote to Honorable Edgardo Romos.
The court has endorsed Slowik’s request and deferred the hearing slated for May 21, 2020 to June 4, 2021 in Room 619 of the Southern District Court of New York at 3:15 pm.
We have published on the Africanist Press website documents, including court papers and details of bank transactions, to illustrate the evidence upon which this report is based. You can download the documents from the Africanist Press website: https://africanistpress.com/2021/05/25/sierra-leone-diplomatic-mission-fails-to-complete-renovation-despite-transfers-of-over-us3-million/