By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman……
The 2018 and 2019 financial records and bank statements of Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs show precisely how more than Le401 billion (over US$4 million) of funds earmarked for the supposed renovation of the Sierra Leone Mission headquarters in New York were withdrawn and diverted between March 2018 and September 2019 by foreign affairs officials in Freetown and their diplomatic counterparts in New York.
The funds were mostly paid into the accounts of the Sierra Leone foreign affairs ministry in Freetown by the Chinese government in multiple amounts as contribution towards construction work at the headquarters of the Sierra Leone Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Details of the financial transactions from the banking records of the foreign affairs ministry for fiscal year 2018, during the first months of the Bio Administration, show that foreign affairs officials in Freetown withdrew all of the funds transferred by the Chinese government into the foreign affairs account between June 2018 and September 2018 instead of transferring the earmarked funds to the designated embassy account in New York.
Africanist Press reviewed a total of 134 transactions made by foreign affairs officials between 2nd March 2018 and 27th December 2018. The transactions included 125 withdrawal transactions totaling Le8,004,769,422.05 (about US$1 million in 2018) and 9 fund transfers, all into the foreign affairs ministry’s account in 2018 alone.
We noticed that 3 of these transactions, totaling Le3,612,889,266.95 (about US$456,317), were monies paid into the foreign affairs ministry by the Chinese government as support towards the renovation of the Sierra Leone Chancery Building in New York in 2018. The first of these 2018 transactions was Le1,350,952,200.00 (US$174,224) paid by the Chinese government to the Sierra Leone foreign affairs ministry on March 2, 2018, in the weeks leading up to the elections of 2018.
This particular amount with transaction ID FT1806180003, transferred from Beijing by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, remained in the foreign affairs account up until 20 April 2018 after the presidential elections that brought the Maada Bio administration into office.
We observed three specific withdrawal transactions totaling Le657,334,175 (US$84,031.40) representing almost half of the transferred amount from the Chinese government for the renovation of the Chancery Building that were withdrawn from the account between 20 April 2018 and 22 May 2018.
We equally identified two subsequent wire transfer transactions totaling Le2,261,937,066.95 (about US$290,000) also carried out in May 2018 and June 2018 respectively from the Chinese government into the account of the foreign affairs ministry as additional contribution towards the renovation of the Chancery Building in New York. These two payments were transferred through the Chinese Embassy in Freetown on 25 May 2018 and 25 June 2018 with transactions numbers FT1814560878 and FT1817606980 in the respective amounts of Le1,191,274,393.10 (US$151,786) and Le1,070,662,673.85 (US$136,418) into the foreign affairs account.
Upon further examination of the 2018 transaction records, we discovered that by 4th September 2018 foreign affairs officials in Freetown had withdrawn a total of Le1,793,413,973.68 (about US$209,023) in 32 withdrawal transactions between 16 July 2018 and 4 September 2018 from the amount paid by the Chinese government in May and June 2018 for the renovation of the Chancery Building in New York.
We found that by 5 September 2018, a combined total of Le2,450,748,148.68 (about US$285,635) from the cumulative amount of Le3,612,889,266.95 (US$456,317) paid by the Chinese government in 2018 toward the Chancery Building had been cumulatively withdrawn by foreign affairs officials within the first four months of the Bio administration in office.
Thus, by 10 September 2018 from the more than Le3.6 billion transferred into the foreign affairs account by the Chinese government in 2018, only Le1,153,586,333.70 remained as closing balance in the foreign affairs account. Foreign affairs officials had withdrawn nearly Le2.5 billion from the said funds without transferring any amount to the designated embassy account in New York in 2018.
These 2018 wire transfers and withdrawal transactions by foreign affairs officials in Freetown do not include monies subsequently transferred to New York in 2019 by the foreign affairs ministry in Freetown, and by other agencies and multilateral partners in 2019 and 2020 as well for the alleged purpose of constructing the same Chancery Building.
The Africanist Press also reviewed the 2019 banking records of the foreign affairs ministry, including all wire transfers and other financial transactions carried out by foreign affairs officials from 8 January 2019 and 31 December 2019. The 2019 banking records also show that over US$3.6 million were transferred between 27 May 2019 and 5 September 2019 from Freetown to New York again for the supposed renovation of the Sierra Leone diplomatic mission building in New York.
Documents published by the Africanist Press on 29 May 2021, which included evidence of the wire transfers from the BSL show precise details of how the cumulative Le36.4 billion (over US$3.6 million) were transferred from the foreign affairs ministry’s account to the embassy’s account in New York between 14 June 2019 and 5 September 2019 by foreign affairs officials to the Sierra Leone Mission in New York.
These bank transfers included 8 wire transfer transactions totaling Le20,070,845,946 (about US$2.1 million) by foreign affairs officials between 24 May 2019, and 24 September 2019. Two other SWIFT transfers (FT1916454098 and FT1924808290) in the amounts of Le7,665,845,933.49 (about US$800,000) and Le9,329,999,975.14 (about US$1 million) were also carried out on 13 June 2019, and 5 September 2019 ,noted specifically as payments towards the renovation of the Chancery Building of the Sierra Leone Mission in New York.
Thus, details from both the 2018 and 2019 foreign affairs ministry’s banking records held at BSL show that at least a total of Le40,104,581,122.18 (over US$4 million) was taken out of the foreign affairs account between 2 March, 2018 and 25 September, 2019; in the first 18 months of the Bio administration in office.
The banking records show precisely that Le3.6 billion of this aggregated total earmarked for the Chancery Building were withdrawn in 2018 and used on unspecified purposes by foreign affairs officials in Freetown, while a cumulative amount of Le36.4 billion was also transferred to the New York Mission in 2019; funds that were also not used for the specified purpose.
Our investigation shows that despite the transfers of over US$3.6 million in June and September 2019 for the renovation of the Chancery Building, no substantial work was done on the renovations, raising further questions regarding the potential use of the funds that were transferred for the project in 2019. Upon receiving the first transfers in 2019, Sierra Leonean diplomats in New York contracted a New York based construction company, the Empire Group LLC, in June 2019 to renovate the Sierra Leone Mission headquarters in New York, including the construction of two additional floors.
Empire Group was hired for the renovation work in 2019 without a competitive bidding and open tender process. Diplomatic officials awarded the contract to Empire Group through an intermediary construction broker, Jules Davis of Fairfield Construction Associates LLC.
Empire Group obtained construction permits from the New York Department of Buildings (NYDOB) to conduct the renovations, but two years on, no real progress has been made. Investigation on the construction site in New York shows that the renovations remain incomplete despite the transfer of more than US$3.6 million from Sierra Leone for the project. Specifically, the proposed top two floors have not been built, leaving Sierra Leonean diplomats to squat at the headquarters of the Ugandan diplomatic mission in New York.
The state of the abandoned building prompted 21 neighbors to file complaints against the Mission and the construction company. The first lawsuit filed on 24 May 2021 by New York residents, Janet and Joseph Harvey, is currently being heard at the Southern District Court of New York before the Honorable Edgardo Ramos. The couple allege that construction work at the Mission’s headquarters poses a clear and present danger to their health and to the health of the public and has significantly harmed their house, which is valued at over US$5 million. The Harveys also accused the Mission and Empire Group of violating numerous provisions of the New York City Construction Code
On 22 June 2021, Attorney Gary Strong of Gfeller Laurie LLP, representing Empire, filed a counterclaim against the Sierra Leone Mission blaming the construction delays and violations on negligence of Sierra Leonean diplomats at the Sierra Leone Mission in New York.
“If Empire Group are found liable in this action, my clients allege that such liability is the result, either wholly or in part, of the negligence, acts, and omissions of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Sierra Leone to the United Nations and any other defendants and third-party defendants not yet named in this action,” Gary Strong said, adding that Empire Group are entitled to contribution from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Sierra Leone to the United Nations to “any and all attorneys’ fees, costs, and disbursements incurred by my client.” Gary Strong has filed a counterclaim at the Southern District Court of New York against the Sierra Leone Mission on grounds of negligence of the contractual agreement with the Empire Group.
Court documents reviewed by the Africanist Press show that the court has dispatched four summons giving notice of the lawsuit to Sierra Leone’s Foreign Affairs Minister David Francis, but the government of Sierra Leone has not entered a legal representation in response to the court matter. The court gave the Sierra Leone government 60 days to respond to the summons failing which a default judgment will be reached against the Mission in New York.
Details of the case, and the Sierra Leone government’s response in Freetown, has exposed ongoing official efforts to cover up the unexplained use of the more than Le40.1 billion (more than US$4 million) earmarked for the Chancery building, including the total of US$3.6 million transferred between June and September 2019 from the foreign ministry’s account to New York for the alleged purpose of renovating the country’s Chancery Building.
On 29 May 2021, Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) announced that it has commenced investigation into the Africanist Press reports on corruption regarding the renovation of the Chancery Building in New York.
The ACC acknowledged that US$4 million was indeed allocated for the renovation work at the Chancery Building, but the Commission says its investigation has to cover between 2011 and 2019, an investigation plot that many Sierra Leoneans see as an apparent effort to cover-up current government officials by accusing members of the previous government for transactions that occurred specifically in 2018 and 2019 when they were no longer in office.
A statement issued by the ACC reported that the Head of Chancery at the New York Mission, Saidu Nallo and other persons of interest involved in the management of the Chancery’s finances have been recalled to Freetown and were in detention assisting the Commission in their investigation.
“Statements were taken from them and they have been kept in custody since Friday, 28 May, 2021. We have also recovered documents and records relevant to the investigation and they are being analyzed by our forensic analysts,” the ACC said in its press release.
However, our investigation discovered that Nallo was, in fact, not recalled but was in Sierra Leone on vacation when the Africanist Press published details of the corruption scandal leading to the ACC issuing a press release announcing an investigation.
In subsequent reports, Africanist Press will examine how Sierra Leone acquired the Chancery Building in New York, and the involvement of the Empire Group.
We have published on the Africanist Press website documents showing details of the transactions on which this report based