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Friday, July 19, 2024

DEMYSTIFYING THE SENATE RETREAT: A TALE OF TWO UNRELATED SENATE DISBURSEMENTS

Date:

By Senator Amara Konneh, Chairman of Public Accounts & Audits

As you read this explanation, I would like all Liberians to understand and appreciate that the monies in question were paid for three distinct activities approved in the 2024 budget. It was not just for a four-day retreat:

• Constituency visits
• Committee functions
• Retreat domestic daily subsistence allowances

These are all legally approved and normal expenditure line items in the national budget for different purposes, except they were paid on and about the same time and so created the confusion. I understand that the media and the public not having this breakdown wrongly concluded that all the money was for a retreat, which, again, is not true as you will see in my explanation. I also encourage civil society and citizen groups to use the Freedom of Information Act to request the budget and the documents I have posted as exhibits should you still have doubts.

That said, In its Tuesday, June 11, 2024 edition, Spoon TV Live broke a story alleging that the Liberian Senate had spent US$700,000 on a four-day retreat in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County. Other local media outlets picked up the story, feeding the social media frenzy that ensued. By the following day, the figure had deflated to US$275,000 but my colleague Senator Abraham Darius Dillon and I had become the principal targets for public scorn on the matter to illuminate the public’s desire for transparency and accountability. Some critics said this was a matter of “Senators sharing money amongst themselves.” Others wrote that “Amara is now part of the Society Bush” suggesting I had accepted illegal money the same way criminals robbed people of their money.

Public insult comes with the territory of statecraft, and I am well able to respond to it. However, I deemed it wise to limit such a response to the media reports last week, announcing on my Facebook page that only US$50,000 was spent on the retreat. In the meantime, I needed to consult the stakeholders responsible for the Senate’s budget, namely the Ways, Means, and Finance (WMF) and the Rules, Order, and Administration (ROA) Committees. I wanted to ensure my future public statements would represent their decisions correctly on this particular matter. I am neither a member of these Senate committees nor do I deal with the Ministry of Finance & Development Planning (MFDP) on Senate financial management. I spoke based on the limited information I had at the time. Thankfully, they swiftly and graciously answered my questions.

But this debate is not about Senator Abe Darius Dillon and me. It highlights the lack of trust in our country’s governance ecosystem because of the history of the lack of transparency and accountability, and the need to build public trust in the governance institution we are members of that is expected to hold the other two branches of our government accountable.

I write now, neither as a defendant in the court of public opinion nor as a defender of the Senate against the public it serves, but as Chairman of the Senate Public Accounts and Audits Committee, the Senate’s integrity body. I am duty bound, in this capacity, to assess the situation dispassionately, and then recommend and support reforms to prevent future misunderstandings.

So, here are the facts:

1. The MFDP issued two checks in favor of the Liberian Senate Operations Account at the Central Bank of Liberia, on June 5, 2024, totalingUS$565,000:
▪ Check #1: US$290,000 for four “Constituency visits” in the year.
▪ Check #2: US$275,000 for “Committee Engagement” and “Senate Retreat” combined.
All funds are approved budgeted expenditures in the FY2024 budget signed into law by the President.

2. The US$290,000 is the total appropriated this fiscal year (FY2024) for 29 senators’ constituency visits a longtime practice. The Secretary of the Liberian Senate had written MFDP on May 3, 2024, requesting an allotment for “Legislative constituency visits for FY 2024,” based on the Senate’s approved appropriation with Budget Code 224118 in the FY2024 Budget signed into law by the President. (See Exhibit 1). The MFDP finally made that allotment a month later, on June 4th, and disbursed it on June 5th, the eve of the Buchanan Retreat. (See Exhibit 2). It was from this request that each Senator received US$10,000 for their Constituency Visits for the year. This confirms Senator Prince Moye’s statement, as Chairman of the Ways, Means, and Finance Committee, that 29 senators had received US$10,000 for “constituency visits.” According to Naymote Partners for Democratic Development, a prominent civil society organization dedicated to promoting accountable democratic governance, “lawmakers held town hall meetings and visited their constituencies, advocating for local issues and ensuring their constituents’ voices were heard.”

3. The US$275,000 was for the Senate’s various committees’ legislative work and hearings for this session and the Senate retreat combined, which makes it unclear exactly how much was spent on the retreat itself. The Secretary of the Senate wrote a second letter to the Minister of Finance, on June 3, 2024, requesting an allotment of $275,000 for “Legislative Committee Engagement (Budget Code 263645 in the FY2024 Budget) and Senate Retreat (Budget Code 1010200: hearings, workshops, conferences, seminars in the FY2024 Budget) in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County from June 6 – 8, 2024 to enhance Legislative duties.” These two separate budget lines as indicated by the different codes were combined in one request and disbursed. (See Exhibits 3 and 4).

The MFDP also disbursed the amount on June 5th, the same day it disbursed the US$290,000 in #1 above. It was from this request that 29 senators received US$3,000 for their various committee functions and LRD328,000 (US$1,708 at the official exchange rate of US1 = LRD 192) for the retreat Domestic Daily Subsistence Allowances (DDSA).

Since it was at the Senate that the bifurcation of the disbursements was made, the ROA can easily clear up any misunderstanding by publishing a breakdown of how much was spent on the retreat. And, while I had earlier stated, based on the LRD328,000 DDSA given to 29 senators at the exchange rate of US1 = LRD192, that the retreat cost US$50,000, I am willing to stand corrected if the actual amount is more or less than this.

While awaiting a final ROA and WMF financial report on the retreat to the Senate Plenary which is still pending, I took steps to establish that the ratified FY2024 Budget printed into handbill was not violated in these transactions and that it contained the economic or budget codes from which funds were processed and paid to the Senate by MFDP, the main focus of internal review of the transaction. I was satisfied that both the Senate and the MFDP honored the approved budget in handling the allotment requests by the Secretary of the Senate.

But none of the above negates the need for reform. I have, therefore, proposed the following critical reforms to the Senate to improve its public financial management:

1. The Senate should pass a Legislative Branch Appropriations Resolution or Act requiring the publication of semi-annual financial reports of the Senate and an annual audit of the Legislative Branch. In the meantime, the Senate should publish the financial report for the retreat.

2. The Senate should accelerate the General Auditing Commission’s (GAC) ongoing systems audit, to put in place an auditable financial system. This will enable the Senate to achieve the financial reporting described above.

3. The Senate Budget Office should formulate a cash plan, work plan, and spending plan to guide budget execution for FY2024. In addition, it should ensure that plans for procurable expenditures are approved by the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC). It should also update the financial management manual to align its payment procedures with the Public Financial Management Law and build an internal control system with the assistance of the Internal Audit Agency.

4. The MFDP should revise the Ordinance for domestic and international Daily Subsistence Allowance rates to reasonably reflect the changes in economic conditions since 2017.

5. The Senate Finance Office, in collaboration with ROA, should prepare and publish a quarterly budget execution report, consistent with the approved budget.

6. Senators should be required to publish an annual report on how they spent the funds disbursed to them for their constituency visitation and committee hearings. I will provide a full report for my office.

7. The MFDP should publish the FY2024 Budget, by June 30, 2024, for the public to see how their money was appropriated to stimulate socioeconomic growth and development in Liberia.

These reform measures are insufficient but necessary to build public trust in this sacred institution. Under the doctrine of separation of powers, the Legislative branch is the only institution that regulates both itself and the two other branches of government. It alone has the power to rebuild its credibility. And I am confident that this class of Senators is more than capable of leading that effort. We will do our part.

I hope I have done justice to the subject and that you have read it unbiasedly with clarity. I will do a short podcast this evening to summarize this explanation for those who might struggle with reading and comprehending my explanation and financial jargon.

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