Evidence on Corruption Involving President Bio And Family Omitted in FY2020 Audit Report

Details on corruption and financial irregularities involving family members and business associates of Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio were omitted from the findings of an annual audit report into government’s financial operations for fiscal year (FY) 2020 submitted to the country’s parliament in early December 2021.

The FY2020 Audit Report was presented to Sierra Leone’s Parliament on 9th December 2021 by acting Auditor General Abdul Aziz, who was controversially appointed in early November 2021 after the unprecedented suspension of the country’s long-standing auditor general, Madam Lara Taylor-Pearce and her deputy, Tamba Momoh.

Africanist Press reviewed documents on the audit exercise and discovered significant omissions in the FY2020 Annual Audit Report. The omitted information includes names of specific family members of President Julius Maada Bio and some of his business friends. Audit queries sent by Audit Service Sierra Leone, the country’s auditing agency in early 2021, to government ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) raised several issues on financial irregularities in the transactions of the audited MDAs that involved family members of the President. Africanist Press discovered that details of these queries mentioned in draft management letters were omitted from the final report before its submission to parliament.

A review of the FY2020 Audit Report against evidence recorded in audit working papers and found that transactions involving family members and business associates of the President were absent in the report. These transactions were flagged during the audit process by auditors as high priority matters requiring management responses. In some cases, the names of these specific individuals mentioned along with the reported irregularities were completely omitted. In other instances, neither the information on the said queries in draft management letters, nor the requested responses from the respective officials in the said MDAs were included in the final report.

Examples of these respective omissions are found in major sections of the FY2020 Audit Report, including sections dealing with the Petroleum Directorate, the National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT), and the Office of the First Lady. Evidence in draft management letters sent to MDAs between March 2021 and October 2022 show that vital information relating to cases of corruption involving members of the President’s family and his business associates were omitted from sections on these MDAs in the FY2020 Audit Report.

In case of the Petroleum Directorate, Africanist Press discovered that the FY2020 Audit Report omitted the names of James Bio, a nephew of President Julius Maada Bio, and one Jacqueline Khoury, a Global Energy Consultant that was hired by the Petroleum Directorate on instructions from the President’s Office. The names of James Bio and Ms. Khoury were categorically mentioned by the Audit Service in draft management letters and other audit documents relating to financial and administrative irregularities in the operations of the Petroleum Directorate.

The FY2020 Audit Report submitted to Parliament contains the details of these flagged transactions involving the two individuals but the names of Bio and Khoury were later omitted.

In a report published in September 2021, Africanist Press had revealed how James Bio became an employee of the Petroleum Directorate in June 2018, a few months after the elections that brought his uncle, Julius Maada Bio, to power in April 2018. Documents published by Africanist Press stated that James Bio was admitted into Robert Gordon University’s master’s program on 17th April 2019, less than a year after his appointment by the President to join the Petroleum Directorate’s management staff. The Petroleum Directorate reportedly paid for the master’s program on behalf of James Bio without following the agency’s employment regulations.

The Petroleum Directorate’s 2019 and 2020 financial records show that a cumulative total of Le211,857,671 (about US$23,000) was drawn directly from the agency’s account in 2019, purportedly to sponsor James Bagie Bio, a nephew of President Julius Maada Bio, to pursue a master’s degree in Oil and Gas Accounting at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. Public funds were also used to fund alleged living allowances and travel-related costs, which amounted to Le162,754,555 (about US$17,000). In total, we discovered that Le393,620,740 (about US$41,653) was cumulatively withdrawn from the Petroleum Directorate Account in 2019 and 2020 for James Bio.

In addition, the Petroleum Directorate’s bank statements for both FY2019 and FY2020 published by the Africanist Press show that regular monthly salaries amounting to Le160,035,127.00 (about US$17,000) were also paid to James Bio between 23 May 2019 and 3 June 2020, despite the notion that he was on study leave in the UK, and for which daily subsistence allowances of Le45,556,360 (about USD$4,400) were also paid to him on August 30, 2019. We discovered that on 3 April 2020, for example, James Bio was paid a rent allowance of Le56,056,000 (US$5,707.87) even though he was already on supposed study leave and for which living allowances had already been paid.

During our investigation, Africanist Press discovered that James Bio did not sign a bond with the Petroleum Directorate in advance of the start of the alleged master’s training program in Aberdeen and that he resigned from the Petroleum Directorate on 20 May 2020, sooner than the three years bonding period required. Africanist Press discovered at the time that James Bio instead left the Petroleum Directorate on 20 May 2020 on a presidential appointment as deputy director of the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA), the agency responsible for regulating Sierra Leone’s Road transport industry, including the registration and licensing of vehicles and drivers.

We found that Audit Service Sierra Leone had already asked the management of the Petroleum Directorate to submit the certificate showing successful completion of the master’s degree by James Bio and for the Le211,857,671 (over USD$25,000, not including salary) spent on tuition and other costs related to the training by the Directorate be refunded. The auditors demanded that the expenses be recouped from James Bio for failing to comply with Section 1401(5) relating to the bonding period

In the audit documents, the Audit Service Sierra Leone directly mentioned the name of James Bio, questioning specifically the procedures used to select James Bio for the training and asked why a bond was never signed between James Bio and the Directorate before the supposed start of the UK training.

“There was no evidence that James Bio signed a bond with the Directorate prior to the start of the M.Sc. program even though a letter of recommendation from the Senior Administrative Manager to Robert Gordon University mentioned that the staff had signed the bond with the Directorate,” the draft management letter addressed to the Petroleum Directorate in early March 2021 stated. The Audit Service Sierra Leone also asked for the course certificate to determine whether James Bio completed the alleged master’s training program in the UK.

“The course certificate to justify successful completion was also not seen in his file or submitted for verification,” the Audit Service noted in the management query sent to the Petroleum Directorate in March 2021.

Africanist Press discovered that the FY2020 Audit Report that was submitted to Parliament included some of the details on the Petroleum Directorate’s financial and administrative irregularities highlighted in the draft management letters; but the name of James Bio was omitted from the final Report.

“The most vital details in the audit papers relating to instances of corruption and nepotism in the Petroleum Directorate involving the President’s family members and business associates were expunged from the final report because they directly implicated the President himself,” an audit official told Africanist Press.

In August 2021, Africanist Press had also published details from procurement records showing how the Petroleum Directorate equally failed to comply with the relevant provisions of the 2016 Public Procurement Act when hiring a global energy consultant in 2019. We discovered, in particular, that the Petroleum Directorate signed an energy consulting contract dated 4th January, 2019, with Jacqueline Khoury of the Global Energy Consultancy Group at a monthly cost of US$8,000 for a period of 12 months ending 31st December, 2019.

Africanist Press discovered at the time that the Petroleum Directorate did not follow Section 37(1) of the 2016 Public Procurement Act to source and recruit Jacqueline Khoury from the Global Energy Consultancy Group as its energy consultant in 2019. We found no records that the Directorate advertised a call for an energy consultant in 2019, neither was there any evidence that the said Ms. Khoury was recruited from a pool of experts who applied to any such advertised position at the Petroleum Directorate in 2019.

Africanist Press also reviewed the Petroleum Directorate’s payment records for 2019, and we observed that payments totaling Le436,069,965.00 (about US$50,596.30) were made on the consulting contract without reference to the stipulated procedures governing payment for services as required by the 2016 Public Procurement Act. These payments included four months’ flat fees totaling Le280,664,480 (over US$32,000) and Le155,405,485.50 (about US$18,031.40) on accommodations, air tickets, and other expenses allegedly borne by the Directorate for the consultant. We identified ten specific payments in the financial records of the Petroleum Directorate made between 4th February 2019 and 5th July 2019 in the name of the Global Energy Consultant. These payments included only four monthly payments to the consultant that were made on 26 February 2019 in the amount of Le69,134,560.00 (about US$8,021.53), and three subsequent payments made on 27 March 2019 (Le70,093,600.00/US$8,132.81), 18 April 2019 (Le70,446,160.00/US$8,173.27), and 9 May 2019 (Le70,990,160.00/US$8,236.63) respectively, leaving unpaid balances for eight months.

During our investigation in May 2021, we also found that the Audit Service Sierra Leone had already questioned the procedures used by the Petroleum Directorate to hire Ms. Khoury as an energy consultant in 2019, and they had also asked that a report justifying work done by the energy consultant be submitted for verification to justify value for money spent.

“A report justifying evidence of work done by the consultant should be submitted otherwise amounts paid totaling Le436,069,965 should be refunded by the consultant,” the Audit Service noted in its draft management letter in early March 2021.

However, when reviewing details in the audit documents against details in the FY2020 Audit Report, we found that the Report mentioned the procurement irregularities surrounding the energy consultant, but the name of Ms. Khoury, a vital information pertinent to the reported irregularities, was also completely omitted.

“Indeed, the names of both James Bio and Jacqueline Khoury were mentioned in the audit papers on the financial and administrative irregularities at the Petroleum Directorate, but their names are completely absent in the final report without an explanation,” a member of the audit team told Africanist Press, adding that “omissions like these deny members of the public access to complete information on various corrupt activities in certain MDAs, including the names of the responsible parties.”

In an earlier article on 16th December 2021, Africanist Press published evidence showing that the FY2020 Audit Report equally excluded pertinent details found in draft management letters relating to the misappropriation of over Le60.9 billion (US$6.9 million) in pension funds collected by NASSIT in FY2019. The report showed that the FY2020 Audit Report expunged details on NASSIT audit findings concerning the material misstatement of over Le60.9 billion in workers’ contribution income that the Auditor Service asked NASSIT to respond to. The FY2020 Audit Report contains no mention of the said Le60.9 billion in contribution income that still remains unaccounted for, an issue that was identified during the audit exercise as a matter of high priority.

Thus, in verifying the content of the FY2020 Audit Report, Africanist Press has been able to further identify several instances of omissions of vital evidence recorded in the audit working papers, including details in draft management letters that were supposed to be addressed by MDAs, which have now been excluded in the final report submitted to Parliament.

In subsequent reports, Africanist Press will continue to highlight details of these omissions and exclusions in the FY2020 Audit Report.

 

 

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