The first batch of "prison graduates" of the controversial law on wilfully causing financial loss to the State of Ghana have come back home, at long last, after serving their various prison terms.
The "prison graduates" were caught up as victims in the bootstraps of the 20 million US Dollars Quality Grains Scandal involving one Mrs. Juliet Cotton, described by a US court as a business investment confidence trickster.
Ironically, the Supreme Court Judge who sat as an additional High Court Judge at the Accra Fast Track Court in Ghana to administer the prison sentences, Justice Kwame Afreh, had died before the famous trio regained their freedom two weeks ago.
The prison graduates include Kwame Peprah, former Finance Minister in the NDC government of Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings.
Ex-Finance Minister Kwame Peprah bagged a maximum of three years on one count while Ibrahim Adam, former Minister of Food and Agriculture, was also sentenced to two years imprisonment.
The third, George Sipah Adja-Yankey, a financial wizard and former Director of the Legal Sector of the Private and Financial Institutions Division of the Ministry of Finance, who was convicted on three counts of conspiracy and causing financial loss to the State, was sentenced to two years imprisonment.
The Fast Track Court presided over by the late Justice Kwame Afreh on Monday 28, 2003, passed the sentences, which were received with widespread mixed public reactions.
The return to freedom of the three men has elicited sighs of relief from various people who, for one reason, or the other, believe that the three former office holders were victims of political witch-hunt and persecution by the NPP government of President John Agyekum Kufuor.
Ex-President Rawlings, under whose administration the big loss took place, is reported by The Chronicle as saying at a political rally that President Kufuor must carry out extension work to the Akuse prisons where he and some of his ministers should be prepared to change places with the three persons when the NDC wins the upcoming elections in December 2004.
In the same vein, Professor Atta Mills, the NDC flagbearer, was also reported as saying during a welcome reception for the former ministers and the legal advisors that, "you have been politically persecuted for merely performing your patriotic duty to your country."
Going to prison is not a matter of joke, considering the fact that the three "prison graduates" could have been victims of circumstances beyond their control. As a result, they all do deserve our collective sympathy.
In fact, the three deserve our solidarity considering what the Supreme Court Judge said when he discharged and acquitted two other officials, Dr. Samuel Dapaah, former Chief Director of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Nana Ato Dadzie, former Chief of Staff, at the then Rawlings Presidency.
A look down memory lane will retrospectively help a grieving nation place the blame squarely where it lies. Where the buck stops.
With the benefit of hindsight, the reputed judge, while passing the sentences, observed that he had taken into account the fact that the trial took almost two years, which might have caused the accused persons considerable hardship, loss of job, and the bulk of money involved.
"I have also considered the apparent influence of some top government officials in the former administration in this case which the accused could not have resisted," the Judge said.
Though Justice Kwame Afreh did not mention names, the inference was clear as daylight.
The Judge had said it was, however, important that Ghanaians also reckoned that the country lost considerable amount of money due to the dishonesty and fraud of Mrs. Juliet Cotton, Chief Executive Officer of Quality Grains Company Ghana Limited.
Mr. Justice Afreh said, "Ms. Cotton would not have succeeded if there had been proper monitoring of the loans and if Government Officials had not gotten too close to her."
According to the Judge, it was important for Ghanaians to appreciate that the memo accompanying the bill that amended the criminal code to include causing financial loss, by the First Parliament of the Fourth Republic, and signed by the late Anthony Forson, then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, said the purpose of the bill was to deter people from committing such crimes.
Mr. Justice Afreh said if the law was bad in its present state, it was up to Ghanaians and parliament to debate it.
He said Dr. Dapaah and Nana Dadzie were acquitted because they had acted on the instructions of their superiors.
In the judgment, Mr. Justice Afreh noted that the fact that the Aveyime Rice Project was viable did not mean that the State could not have occurred losses through the acts and omissions of public officials.
He said the Quality Grains Incorporated in USA was not registered with the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre and had no investments in Ghana when it was introduced to the government of Ghana.
More over, the convicts had ignored warnings from the former Ghana Ambassador to the USA, Kobby Koomson, about the dubious nature of Mrs. Cotton's company, adding "the government of Ghana refused to take action on the rapacious conduct of Ms. Cotton after its attention was drawn to it."
Mr. Justice Afreh said if the appropriate checks had been done, it would have been found that most of the claims of Mrs. Cotton and her Quality Grains Company were false.
Significantly, our three heroes went to jail exactly one year after the Atlanta Journal of the USA reported that Mrs Juliet Cotton, alias Miss. Woodard, had been jailed by a court in the US for fraud and dishonesty.
According to the Atlanta Journal, 38 years old Mrs. Cotton was convicted by a Federal Jury in Atlanta in the United States on 35 counts of bank fraud, money laundering and making false statements, to 15 years in prison.
Cotton, said the Jury, had obtained more that 18 million US Dollars in loans for her rice project in Ghana but embezzled 9.5 million US Dollars for herself.
She was reported to have spent the money on a 1.1 million US Dollars home, at the gated St Ives country club, luxury cars, an extravagant wedding, and other amenities, said assistant US Attorney, Richard Langway, during the Atlanta trial.
"This is a case about greed, avarice, and arrogance," the US Prosecutor said.
In 1996, Mrs Cotton became president of Quality Grain Co. Ghana Limited, which obtained millions of dollars in loans from South Trust Bank to finance the rice field operations in Ghana.
But witness testified that Cotton created fraudulent invoices to South Trust Bank and diverted millions of dollars to herself.
On August 8, 1997, the Atlanta Journal reported Cotton walked into a South Trust Bank and withdrew 200.000 US Dollars in cash.
She then drove to Phipps Plaza where she spent 65.000 US Dollars at Tiffany's on jewellery, including 46.000 US Dollars on a diamond wedding ring, US Attorney Langway said.
A day later, Cotton gave 10.000 US Dollars in cash to the leader of a 50-piece band, which played at her wedding.
Two days later she handed over 30.000 US Dollars in cash to a travel agent to pay for a Caribbean honeymoon and plane tickets for wedding guests.
Cotton also used 500.000 US Dollars to buy a Rolls Royce, a Bentley, a Jaguar, and two Mercedes Benz cars for the grand fiesta attended by some of her Ghanaian partners.
It was these corruption indictments, which found the ex-ministers of State implicated in the bogus rice production contract with Cotton guilty of causing financial loss to the State of more than 20 million US Dollars to the tiny West African State of Ghana.
The facts of the case, as presented by the prosecution, were that desirous of external finance to execute a rice farming and milling project, the government of Ghana agreed in 1995 to take up an offer of funds from foreign lending institutions, to be supported by the Export Import Bank (EXIM Bank) of the United States of America.
According to the prosecution, an important condition of the EXIM Bank guarantee of funding was that the government would hold 76 per cent of the shares while the US investor held 24 per cent in a joint-venture company, which was required to execute the project.
It said Ibrahim Adam introduced Mrs. Juliet Cotton, also known as Ms. Woodard, and her Quality Grains Company Incorporated to the government as experienced rice farmers who could bring their rich experience and expertise to bear on irrigation rice farming at Aveyime in the Volta Region.
It said that the accused persons wilfully assisted Mrs. Cotton to establish two companies by the same name, Quality Grains Company Limited, with Mrs. Cotton as the Chief Executive Officer of both companies.
The prosecutor further alleged that while the first Quality Grains Company Limited was a wholly foreign owned company, the second was supposed to be a joint-venture company between the government and Mrs. Cotton.
It claimed that in addition to the first loan agreement, which was approved by Parliament, Kwame Peprah and George Adja-Yankey wilfully committed the government to guarantee two other loan agreements totalling over 13.274.305 US dollars, without parliamentary approval and in flagrant violation of the Constitution of the Republic of Ghana.
According to the prosecutor, this brought to an overall total approximately 20 million US dollars the external funds which the government guaranteed in favour of the joint-venture company to execute an irrigation rice production project for the country.
"In all this, neither Mrs. Cotton nor her US Company, the purported investors, invested a single cent. They were, in truth, no investors, but rather consummate fraudsters and looters who were actively and wilfully assisted by the accused persons in causing massive financial loss to the state," it said.
The prosecution asserted that even when it had become quite clear that the whole project was floundering and that Mrs. Cotton and her company did not have the capacity to deliver, the accused persons continued to advance further funds to pay for goods and services in Ghana, though they had already been provided for by the external loans.
According to the prosecution, this included a gratuitous amount of 2 million US dollars which Peprah "criminally" directed the Controller and Accountant General to pay into the personal account of Mrs. Cotton.
It claimed that the combined effect of the wilful acts and omissions of the accused persons resulted in the financial loss of over 11 million US dollars and over 3 billion cedis to the state.
The government of Ghana, it contended, is paying these loans with interest and to date has paid over 20 million US dollars and is under contractual obligation to pay further principal interest when it becomes due as a result of the wilful acts and omissions of the accused persons.
These further obligations, the prosecution alleged, amounted to 1.858.899 US dollars, resulting in an overall liability of over 22 million US dollars for a project that, at its very inception, was originally 4.718.441 US dollars in design.
Conclusion: So dear readers I invite you after dispassionate analysis, to tell The Chronicle in candid terms, who should be held responsible for sending Kwame Peprah, Ibrahim Adam, and George Sipah Adja-Yankey to jail?
I bet, your well thought-out guess, may be as good as mine, with very, very much pointed fingers directed at the TOP, UPWARDS THERE rather than BELOW THE BELT, and DOWNWARDS HERE!