In the wake of ongoing heated exchanges between Commerce Minister Wilson K. Tarpeh and his dismissed deputy, Jamima Wolokollie, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has called on the General Auditing Commission to audit the Small Business Pro-Poor Development Fund (SBPDF) that was launched at the Ministry to support Liberian-owned Small and Medium Enterprise.
In a letter referenced “MCI/WKT-M/0080/’2020”, dated July 15. 2020 and signed by Prof. Wilson K. Tarpeh, Minister of Commerce, the Commerce boss recounted that the fund was launched officially by President George Weah in 2018 to support Liberian-owned small and medium enterprises with an initial startup amount of One Million United States dollars.
Minister Tarpeh said the startup amount was matched with an additional amount of One Million United States dollars by the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), noting that the SBPDF program is solely managed and operated by the LBDI.
Directed to the office of Auditor-General Madam Yusador S. Gaye, Commerce Minister Tarpeh further wrote in his letter, “In view of the above, I am kindly requesting your good office to conduct a full audit on the above program as of June 30, 2020.
“I, and members of my financial team at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry will be available for any meetings you deem necessary that will assist you with the audit process,” Commerce Minister Tarpeh promised in the letter which was copied to the Chief of Staff and Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill.
The call for audit of the fund comes at a time dismissed Deputy Commerce Minister Wolokollie is accusing Minister Tarpeh on public radio stations of financial improprieties; that Minister Tarpeh failed to hand over to her the list of beneficiaries of the funds.
Wolokollie said upon her return from suspension, Minister Tarpeh delegated in her charge the operation of the funds, but said, when she asked the Minister to relinquish to her the list of beneficiaries of the funds while she was under suspension, Minister Tarpeh failed to give the list of those who benefited from the funds.
As a result, Wolokollie claimed she separated herself from the funds which she said amounts to Three Million United States Dollars. “I am not saying Minister Tarpeh ate the money; all I am saying is that I could not agree to take over the funds unless the list of beneficiaries is presented to me. This Minister Tarpeh did not do so until my dismissal,” Madam Wolokollie informed the media.
Consequently, Deputy Minister Wolokollie called for an audit of Minister Tarpeh in respect to the usage of the funds.
But Minister Tarpeh denied the allegation, saying the account of Wolokollie is a “barefaced fabrication.”
A Commerce Ministry press release also quotes Minister Tarpeh as denying the allegations that he unilaterally disbursed the amount from his office, but instead presented financial instruments bearing the signature of Madam Wolokollie.
In his official reaction on the matter during a major press conference at the Commerce Ministry in Congo Town on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, Minister Tarpeh informed journalists that Ms. Wolokollie’s comments were maliciously twisted to bury the facts, and to tarnish his reputation and that of the Commerce Ministry.
“Madam Wolikollie’s utterances are grossly baseless, false and unfounded, to the effect that the US$2 million allotted to small businesses under the Small Business Pro-Poor Development Fund (SBPDF) was misused”, Professor Tarpeh said.
He also noted that the accusation by the former deputy minister is nothing but a product of a “depraved mind of a functional illiterate.”
“For the record, the loan program is administered, managed and operated by the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI). The Ministry only provides strategic oversight and guidance as a sector Ministry,” Minister Tarpah said during the press conference.
As evidence that Madam Jamima Wolokollie’s comments were far from the truth, the Commerce Ministry displayed financial documents indicating a specific transaction dated July 3, 2020.
In December 2018, President George Manneh Weah formally launched the Small Business Pro-Poor Development Fund (SBPDF), with the Government of Liberia contributing an initial amount of US$1 million, while the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI) committed US$2 million to the project, bringing the program to a total of US$3 million; but the bank has only paid or disbursed the first US$1 million.
“Ms. Wolokollie claims that she knows nothing about the SBPDF Account and the financial activities of the project because it was not handled by her office. This is a blatant lie because Wolokollie is one of the “A” signatories to the account,” Minister Tarpeh added.
He further told journalists and by extension the public that the LBDI’s US$1 million of its commitment is a particular Account created by the Bank and is controlled directly by the Bank, without any outsider intervention.
“In other words, the LBDI’s contribution is not in the SBPDB Account opened by the Commerce Ministry, but is available to the loan program. The amount is, however, reflected in the total loan resources available under this program. As of July 3, 2020, the account had a credit balance of US$957,582.34,” Prof. Tarpeh noted.
He stated further that there are two check payment transactions over this account since its opening, and Ms. Wolikollie authorized the first payment of US$33,216.00 for training she “reportedly conducted.”
It can be recalled that Madam Wolokollie, appearing on a local radio, alleged that there were no records of loan disbursements, including borrowers, addresses, loan amounts, interest rates, tenure and maturity, something Professor Tarpeh also rejected.
Commerce Minister Tarpeh described this assertion as “barefaced fabrication, unfounded and untrue.”
He said Ms. Wolokollie also authorized the payment of US$8,380.80 to cover the cost of advertisements and associated activities that she (Wolokollie) said were needed to support the SBPDF.
“How can she say she knew nothing about the account when she signed the checks drawn on the account as indicated in documents marked Exhibits A, B, C, and D?” Minister Tarpeh wondered.
According to Minister Tarpeh, to guide the administration, management and operation of the loan program, MOCI and LBDI entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), thereby ensuring that all loan applications are addressed and delivered to LBDI.
“Credit decisions are made solely by the Bank, following appropriate scrutiny, using its own professional standards. The Ministry plays no role in the process. The bank makes semi-annual reports to the Ministry, covering the activities of the program for each reporting period,” Minister Tarpeh further clarified.