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

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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 since 2012. 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.”

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 thafyit over US$500,000 cash was taken out in cash by the President for medical ex.

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

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