The National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom has forfeited an amount of US$8million(approx £6.4 million) linked to a Liberian business account in the 1970s. What is not clear is whether the money was deposited prior to the death of Liberia’s 19th President William V.S. Tubman or after.
President Tubman died at a clinic in London following post-operative complications from prostate gland surgery in July 1971, at the age of 75. He was succeeded by his long-time Vice President, William R. Tolbert, who was overthrown in a bloody coup d’etat, nearly nine years later, which brought Master Sargeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and the People’s Redemption Council to power
The NCA, on 8 April 2020, issued a Notice of Forfeiture on the account’s balance of $8 million dollars (approx £6.4 million), which investigators argued was part of a fund operated for the purpose of tax evasion, money laundering, bribery and corruption.
The NCA leads the UK’s fight to cut serious and organised crime, protecting the public by targeting and pursuing those criminals who pose the greatest risk to the UK.
The IRI Connection, Implications
In 2018, the UK put into effect, The Criminal Finances Act 2017 (CFA) with the provisions enabling Unexplained Wealth Orders and a new offence of failure to prevent tax evasion.
Section 16 of the CFA amended the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA). It inserted sections 303Z1 to 303Z19 into Part 5 of POCA 2002, creating powers to freeze the contents of bank and building society accounts so that, just as with cash, they could be forfeited in the same way – with a Forfeiture Order.
Part 5 of POCA 2002 deals with the civil recovery of the proceeds of crime. It covers cash detention and forfeiture, which is a Magistrates’ Court matter, and High Court civil recovery, including Property Freezing Orders.
Under the law, the freezing of the account is the first stage of the process. The second stage is forfeiture.
The bank in a statement notes: “The bank account had been internally investigated and suspended after an individual had tried to set up a new account and move the money, explaining that it was to be paid to various charities. Since then, no one had attempted to touch the money. The company behind the account was incorporated in Liberia, West Africa, in the 1970s and was purportedly set up to operate large container ships for an international shipping company.”
The only international shipping company linked to Liberia at the time was the International Registries, Inc which in the 1970s grew to a size of 79 million gross tons and its corporate formation program becomes a leading force in the financial services industry.
In 2000, IRI parted ways with the Liberian Registry after a bitter legal wrangle with Liberia.
‘Corrupt Liberian Business Account’
The NCA has labelled the amount, laundered criminal money, recovered after an investigation into a corrupt Liberian business account.
According to the NCA, its investigation began when Commerzbank AG London approached the National Economic Crime Centre after noticing unusual activity on an account held by a Liberian company called ‘The Albatross Limited’.
The bank account had been internally investigated and suspended after an individual had tried to set up a new account and move the money, explaining that it was to be paid to various charities. Since then, no one had attempted to touch the money.
The company behind the account was incorporated in Liberia, West Africa, in the 1970s and was purportedly set up to operate large container ships for an international shipping company,” the statement said.
Working in partnership with the bank, NCA investigators were able to secure and analyse over 10 years worth of data which established that the account had been set up using fake identities.
The shipping company had no knowledge of the company and were able to show that it had never appeared on any of their balance sheets.
All of those identified as being affected by the application gave their consent for the administrative forfeiture of the funds totalling $8,042.059.57.
The money had been held under an Account Freezing Order, granted to the NCA at Westminster Magistrates Court in October 2019.
Tim Quarrelle, NCA Financial Investigations Manager, said: “This was a significant forfeiture, which was the result of six months of investigative work, during sometimes challenging times.
“Commerzbank rightly referred this account, which had sat untouched for years and had a history of red flags.
“The bank account had been internally investigated and suspended after an individual had tried to set up a new account and move the money, explaining that it was to be paid to various charities. Since then, no one had attempted to touch the money. The company behind the account was incorporated in Liberia, West Africa, in the 1970s and was purportedly set up to operate large container ships for an international shipping company.”
The National Crime Agency, The United Kingdom
‘Strong Compliance Culture’
“Part of the money recovered will go directly back into fighting serious and organised crime.”
Sarah Pritchard, Director of the National Economic Crime Centre, at the NCA, said: “This is a fantastic example of how public and private sectors can work together to detect and disrupt economic crime – denying criminals of their illicit funds.
“Money laundering underpins and enables most forms of organised crime, allowing criminals to hide their assets and continue their operations.
“Working with partners, we will continue to use our powers to look for and target funds that we suspect are linked to crime.”
Robert McMillan at Commerzbank said: “At Commerzbank we have a strong compliance culture and have invested significant resources in our AML policies and controls, so we are pleased to have worked with the NCA to achieve this result.”
According to the NCA, Commerzbank did not open the account but rather inherited the account as a result of a merger. “Since the mid-80s, anti-money laundering legislation and banking industry controls have significantly developed to mitigate financial crime risk and therefore allowed the appropriate action to be taken,” the NCA noted.
The Criminal Asset Denial Team (CADT) was established to deal with complex Confiscation and Restraint investigations as well as utilising new asset denial powers, such as Account Freezing Orders (AFO), conferred under the Criminal Finance Act 2017
Since the team’s establishment 18-months ago, they have successfully frozen in excess of £30 million of suspected recoverable property
The freezing and subsequent forfeiture of bank and building society accounts can be sought if the balance exceeds £1,000 and the money is suspected to be recoverable property, linked to criminality
Account Freezing Orders (AFOs) and Notice of Forfeiture are civil orders and do not represent a finding of guilt.
An Account Freezing Order is an investigative tool that allows the agency to examine the provenance of funds and their intended use. Once there are enough grounds to believe there is a criminal aspect, a Notice of Forfeiture can be issued, the respondent then has 30 days in which they can respond to either reject or accept the order The recovered money will be paid to the Home Office, with part of the money going directly back into fighting serious and organised crime
What are Liberia’s Options?
Legal experts say Liberia would have to prove that the money deposited was of ill-gotten gain in order to have it turned over to the cash-strapped nation. However, under the new UK legislation which basically allows them to confiscate assets which may be linked to organized crimes could complicate matters.
Key among the concerns: Was the US$8 million proceeds from Liberia? If it was just a Liberian company registered to the offshore registry, it would be less justification.
Equally, one observer said, it could have been part of the shipping company and they had this account that was used for bribes and it wasn’t on its books.
However, if it was looted Tubman or Tolbert’s money, then Liberia could claim ownership.
It is unclear whether the NCA notified Liberia before concluding that the money was criminal before forfeiting.
It is also unclear whether the money was deposited by a resident of Liberia or a non-resident. In any case, an observer in the international financial intelligence network expressed concerned that the UK, not Liberia is getting the money. “We thought it was interesting that the UK appears to get the proceeds, not Liberia.”
Account Linked to ‘Criminality’
Under UK law, the forfeit is warranted when there is a suspicion that the account is linked to criminality, that the account had been dormant and in a suspended status for over 10-years; that the account had been opened by another bank in the 1970’s and inherited some years later by Commerzbank following a merger; that investigators believed that signatories for the account were in falsified names; that decisions made in relation to the account made no commercial sense.
For example, on several occasions funds were transferred to different non-interest bearing accounts for no discernible reason at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars; that the bank had received instructions to not send out any correspondence in relation to the account; that the alleged parent company had no knowledge of THE ALBATROSS, confirmed it was not their business and that it had never featured on their balance sheet; and that none of the affected parties opposed the forfeiture of the balance of funds subject to the Notice of Forfeiture.
Edwin Harris, head of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) did not return calls and text message seeking comment Monday but a senior official in the George Weah-led government, speaking on condition of anonymity said Monday, expressed concerns that Liberia was not informed about the forfeiture.
The million-dollar question is, was Liberia a party to the proceedings? Was Liberia even informed? and what are the chances of repatriation and how could Liberia reclaim the money it desperately needs to help resuscitate its struggling economy?