The son of the president of Liberia worked as an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in a massive three-year international cocaine trafficking investigation, according to federal indictments unsealed Tuesday in Manhattan.
In an unusual and dramatic sting operation, Fombah Tea Sirleaf, the son of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, donned a wire and pretended to accept bribes to ensure safe passage of $100 million worth of drugs into Liberia from cocaine trafficking networks in Venezuela and Colombia, the indictments said.
Tea Sirleaf is director of the west African nation's National Security Agency and one of Liberia's highest officials. (While U.S. prosecutors described him as Johnson Sirleaf's son, a spokeswoman for the Liberian president said he is actually the president's stepson).
His cooperation with the DEA's "Operation Relentless" led to arrests of eight alleged drug traffickers in Liberia, who operated under aliases like the Frenchman and Gee Wee, the U.S. said.
Liberian officials made the arrests on Friday and Saturday. The defendants arrived in New York yesterday to await trial, and the indictments were unsealed today, according to the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York.
The operation represents a high-profile strike against corruption in Africa and was carried out with Johnson Sirleaf's knowledge and cooperation, Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said during a news conference Tuesday.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder met with leaders of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris to emphasize the department's commitment to anti-corruption efforts. The OECD, an international organization of democratic countries with market-based economies, adopted an anti-bribery convention in 1997 after years of U.S. nudging.
Daniel Kaufmann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Liberia case -- while technically a narcotics conspiracy charge - reflects the international community's broader efforts against bribery and corruption.
He noted similarities in circumstances and tactics to the FCPA sting case, in which 22 employees of defense and law enforcement industry suppliers were arrested after allegedly agreeing to pay bribes to an FBI undercover agent who pretended to represent the minister of defense an unnamed African country.
This case is about more than internal developments in Liberia, said Kaufmann, who was previously the director at the World Bank Institute,where he led work on governance and anti-corruption.
When you take this with the other sting case earlier this year, the increased enforcement of the FCPA in recent years, I think it indicates a broader effort on the part of the U.S. authorities.
According to the two indictments unsealed Tuesday, since 2007 the defendants had attempted to bribe two high-level Liberian government officials -- one of whom was Tea Sirleaf -- in order to secure the safe passage, storage and distribution of their cocaine shipments to Europe.
What the defendants didn't know, however, was that the Liberian national security officials they were allegedly trying to bribe were actually working undercover as part of a long-term, coordinated investigation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Bharara said at Tuesday's news conference
And as a result, the defendants' brazen attempts to corrupt and exploit Liberia in service of their drug business were caught on tape - audio and video, he added.
While the defendants were attempting to secure trafficking lines to Europe, they were aware that some of their drugs could be sent to the United States, the U.S. said.
A confidential source working with DEA, who purported to be a business partner and friend of Tea Sirleaf, told the defendants that some of the cocaine given as bribes would be transported from Liberia to Ghana, and from there to New York, the indictments said.
The U.S. jurisdiction in this matter appears to rest solely on the confidential source's representations to the defendants that he or she intended to send drugs to New York.
The Justice Department is increasingly using aggressive, undercover techniques to prosecute international and financial corruption. An informant wore a wire to collect evidence of alleged insider trading at the Galleon hedge fund in New York.
During a recent speech, Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer said that his office would continue to use sting operations, wire-taps and other tactics.
We are also making use of more aggressive law enforcement techniques, Breuer said. And I think it is fair to say that we will continue to look for opportunities to innovate in how we identify financial fraud and corruption.
West Africa has struggled with corruption and, over the last 10 years, South American drug traffickers have increasingly used countries along or near the West African coast as hubs for importing massive quantities of cocaine to be distributed in Europe or elsewhere within Africa.
In this case, the drugs originated from several South American countries, including Colombia. According to the indictments one of the defendants stated that 4,000 kilograms of cocaine that was to be sent to Liberia had been supplied and protected by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), U.S.-desiganted Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The FARC is dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Colombian government, one U.S.'s closest allies in the region, and it is illegal for U.S. companies or people to do business with it.
Kaufmann said the case also highlighted the internationalization of narco-terror.
Christopher M. Matthews
22 June 2010
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