Sierra Leone: President illegally suspends audit officials amidst controversy over presidential travel expenses and other financial irregularities

By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman

 Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio has indefinitely suspended two of the most senior members of the country’s national auditing agency. Auditor general, Madam Lara Taylor-Pearce and her deputy, Tamba Momoh, were indefinitely suspended from office on Thursday morning. No official reasons were given by the President’s Office for the decision, which many in Sierra Leone, have described as unprecedented.

Mrs. Lara Taylor-Pierce, the country’s Auditor General had served as head of Sierra Leone’s Audit Service for more than a decade. She built an enviable reputation of producing reliable annual audit reports that usually detailed misappropriation and misuse of public funds, corruption, and other financial irregularities across government ministries, departments, and agencies. On Thursday morning, a Presidential Order announced the sudden indefinite suspension of both Taylor-Pearce and her deputy, Tamba Momoh. The Presidential Order also announced that the president had equally requested the establishment of a tribunal to “investigate the professional activities of the auditing agency.”

Civil society organizations and pro-democracy activists in Sierra Leone have fully condemned the decision, describing the Presidential action as a “constitutional violation and a move to hamper transparency and accountability in public finance management.”

By December 2021, Africanist Press learned that over 170 civil servants, mostly internal auditors in the Finance Ministry and Office of the President, had been indefinitely suspended or dismissed on the suspicion that they were informants for Africanist Press.

Africanist Press learned that the President’s decision to suspend the two leading audit officials came after the auditing agency had highlighted financial and procurement irregularities while auditing details of the President’s travel expenditures and procurement activities of the Office of the First Lady for FY2020. Audit officials reportedly discovered that the President’s Office had submitted several forged documents, including fake hotel receipts and invoices to the Audit Service as part of the president’s travel expenditures for FY2020. In management queries sent to the President’s Office in early October 2021, audit officials noted that several documents submitted by the President’s Office to justify travel expenses in FY2020, including lists of per diems, and details of alleged procurement-related activities by the President and his delegation while traveling abroad were verified to be false. The submitted receipts and invoices included alleged payments in various amounts ranging from US$50,000 to US$75,000 and US$120,000 paid to hotels in South Africa, Lebanon, Gabon, the United Kingdom, and Ethiopia. Auditors reportedly presented the invoices and receipts to the hotels for audit verification which the hotels denied to have issued. The management of a hotel in South Africa is reportedly considering litigation for the forged receipts, while another hotel claims that incidental expenses incurred by the presidential delegation still remained unpaid.

Apart from the falsified hotel receipts, the audit officials also questioned the amounts and procedures used to withdraw per diem and other funds by the Presidential delegation, including cash withdrawn for alleged medical expenses in Lebanon in August 2020. In the case of the Lebanon trip, auditors found that the President’s Office underreported the total of funds withdrawn from the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) in the name of the President as per diem and for medical expenses.

Expenditure documents submitted by the President’s Office claimed that the President withdrew only US$125,000 from the Local and Overseas Travel Account in August 2020 for medical expenses in Lebanon. However, the FY2020 Statement of the President’s travel account show that President Bio and his wife, Fatima Bio, withdrew more than Le10 billion (over US$1 million) for the Lebanon trip in August of 2020. Bank records show that between August 26, and September 30, 2020 alone, President Bio withdrew a cumulative Le10,117,531,840.00 (over US$1 million) from the Local and Overseas Travel Account for the supposed emergency trip to Lebanon. The amounts in question comprised an aggregate total of Le7,586,450,552.00 (over US$758,000) allegedly spent on fees paid to a private air charter, alleged payment for the president’s medical bill, and daily subsistence allowances (DSA) for the First Lady Fatima Bio, and other members of the delegation. Auditors questioned the procedures used to withdraw the said funds and they asked why the payments were not made by bank transfer instead of a cash withdrawal. The President’s Office provided no documents showing evidence of payment of medical expenses. Officials in the President’s Office were also unable to justify the discrepancy between the US$125,000 amount they submitted in withdrawal documents and the amounts in bank statements showing that over US$500,000 cash was taken out in cash by the President for medical expenses ahead of his Lebanon trip.

In 2020, Maada Bio and his wife collectively withdrew over US$3 million from BSL for alleged travel expenses despite bans on international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The management queries to the Office of the President also questioned the indiscriminate cash withdrawals, often in foreign currencies, carried out in the name of the President and his wife between 10 January 2020, and 11 December 2020. Auditors noted seven specific large cash withdrawals that were carried out in the name of Madam Bio, all totaling Le1,847,601,064 (over US$180,000). These specific transactions included two withdrawals on 10 January 2020, of Le322,083,000 (over US$32,000) and Le71,013,453 (over US$7,000) for the First Lady while accompanying the President on a trip to the UK, and a further amount of Le276,949,376 (over US$27,000) also withdrawn on January 30, 2020, for a trip to Ethiopia with the President. These cash withdrawals were separate from similar amounts simultaneously withdrawn in the name of the President on the same dates from the Local and Overseas Travel account at BSL for these trips. On 10 January 2020, for example, three cash withdrawal transactions in the amounts of Le272,347,976 (over US$27,000), Le644,166,000 (over US$64,000), and Le649,457,300 (about US$65,000) were accessed in the name of the President for expenditures ahead of the UK and Ethiopia trips. Thus, on 10 January 2020 alone, the aggregate cash withdrawn by the president and his wife amounted to Le2,019,912,730 (over US$200,000). Auditors demanded evidence of expenses for the said funds, including retirement details for funds that were not spent. The Office of the President could also not provide supporting documents to justify the said expenditure, instead they argued that details of the President’s medical and other expenses and other related documentation could not be fully disclosed because it constitutes national security information.

In addition to these financial irregularities, auditors also found that the wife of the president, First Lady Fatima Jabbe Bio did not comply with procurement procedures when dispensing funds allocated to her office in FY2020. Auditors reported that alleged procurement activities of the Office of the First Lady were not preceded by open competitive bids and were mostly done in violation of the procurement laws of the country. Audit officials also reportedly questioned the procedures allegedly used by finance ministry officials to cancel the domestic debt amounting to over Le24 billion owed by a local construction company affiliated with the president and his wife.

Our investigation into the financial operations of the organization, including how its allocated funds were spent in 2018, revealed that the Le7.89 billion disbursed to the organization by finance ministry officials did not comply with national finance laws.

Africanist Press discovered that auditor general Lara Taylor-Pearce and deputy Tamba Momoh had incurred the wrath of the President by insisting on including the audit findings on the president’s travel expenditure and details of the irregularities relating to the First Lady’s Office in the FY2020 Audit Report.

“The President has directed that these details be removed from the draft report before its publication,” officials in the President’s Office noted in their management response in late October 2021.

Sierra Leone’s Audit Service is the country’s supreme auditing agency mandated to carry out specialized audits on the use of public finances by government ministries, agencies, and departments. Section 119 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone empowers the Auditor General to undertake periodic audits into the public accounts of the government of Sierra Leone and of all other public offices set-up wholly or partly by public funds, including the Office of the President, the courts, and other public institutions.

Section 15 of the Audit Service Act of 2014 provides that “the Auditor-General shall act independently in the exercise of his duties under Section 119 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone and shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority.”

Lawyers in Sierra Leone argue that the president’s decision to suspend the Auditor General and his instruction to institute a tribunal violated both the 1991 Sierra Leone Constitution and the 2014 Audit Service Act. “Section 35(1) of the Audit Service Act 2014 provides that no criminal or civil proceedings shall lie against the Auditor-General, for anything done in good faith in the course of the performance of his functions under this Act,” they said.

While arguments over the constitutionality of the auditor general’s suspension have continued, transparency concerns have also been raised with many questioning the president’s commitment to fighting graft and endemic public corruption. President Bio was elected on a promise to enforce fiscal discipline, and reduce waste and graft in public spending, including reductions in foreign travel by public officials.

The administrative tension and standoff between the Audit Service and government officials over audit performances casts deep suspicion on the Bio administration’s claim to fiscal discipline and points to efforts to cover-up existing evidence of graft and frivolous public expenditure already captured in audit reports on coronavirus funds.

“My government will develop and introduce a standardized overseas travel policy for the public service and covering all categories of workers, including government ministers as part of additional expenditure control measures,” President Bio announced in Parliament on May 10, 2018, during his state opening address.

An internal memo dated August 1, 2019, from the Office of the President addressed to all heads of government ministries, agencies, and departments announced a temporary freeze on overseas travel by public officials.

“The President has directed that with immediate effect all ministers, ministers of state, deputy ministers and all other public servants should not embark on official overseas trips, except for statutory engagements, until further notice. Participation at statutory meetings must be cleared with His Excellency the President on the submission of concurrence for the use of public funds,” wrote Secretary to the President Julius Sandy on August 1, 2019.

Despite these public pronouncements and promises, President Bio and his wife spent much of the his nearly four years in office making frequent trips to Europe and Asia, drawing public criticism on the purposes and significance of these travels. Critics of the President say the number of overseas trips is now over 100, a record that exceeds any sitting president of Sierra Leone since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002.

Towards the end of 2019, however, Jacob Jusu Saffa – Bio’s former finance minister – proposed a new legislative provision to grant President Bio unregulated access to travel money. The Finance Ministry’s Finance Amendment Act of 2020 called for an amendment to Section 65 of the 2016 Public Financial Management Act, which is the law that regulates government travel expenditure. The amendment substituted the law with a new provision that would have allowed Bio unregulated access to travel money.

Despite these public pronouncements and promises, President Bio and his wife spent much of the four years in office making frequent trips to Europe and Asia.

Section 42 of the proposed 2020 Finance Act requested Parliament to approve the new legislative provision for non-accountable use of travel funds by the President and his deputy for all international travels. The proposed law specifically provides in Section 42(5) for “non-accountable imprest to be provided for daily international travel expenses, excluding purchase of tickets incurred by the President and Vice President.”

Parliament initially passed the proposed legislation into law in late November 2019, but in early December 2019, Parliamentarians voted again to remove the legislation from the 2020 Finance Act due to public pressure. The law had given the President, and two of his top officials – the Vice President and Speaker of Parliament – open cheques to use public funds when on overseas travel.

However, an Africanist Press investigation in early January 2021 discovered that President Bio and his wife collectively withdrew a total of over Le30 billion Leones (more than US$3 million) from the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) for alleged travel expenses in fiscal year 2020 alone, despite bans on international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

You can download here the Transaction-Details-from-the-Local-and-Overseas-Travel-Account-of-the-Office-of-the-Presidennt-for-FY-2020 for evidence of all withdrawals made for travel expenses, including per diems, tickets, and cash withdrawals for the reported transactions above. 

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