Last July, five months before she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf welcomed Chevron CEO John Watson into the executive mansion to herald one of the largest investments in her country since the end of its devastating civil war in 2003: Chevron's purchase of the rights to explore for oil off the coast of the West African nation.
Sirleaf told the CEO, "We hope that you will work with us to ensure the fullest of integrity in everything that you do." Watson reciprocated, telling the president, "The hallmark of your administration has been anti-corruption, transparency, rule of law. We look forward, at Chevron, to helping you establish that high integrity method of doing business in this country."
But in the judgment of one of the Liberian government's own anti-corruption watchdogs, Chevron's investment had been tainted even before the multinational oil giant paid its first dollar. According to a report of the auditor general of the Liberian General Auditing Commission (GAC), a series of bribes -- less than $120,000 when added altogether -- was allegedly paid in 2006 and 2007 so that the legislature would grant two small firms the rights to four oil concessions off Liberia's coast. One of those companies, which purchased rights to three offshore properties, sold its concessions to Chevron.
No one has been prosecuted or charged with wrongdoing for the alleged bribes. According to a cache of U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, both Sirleaf and the U.S. State Department pushed for the three allegedly tainted concessions to be sold to Chevron even after the allegations became public. ExxonMobil is now zeroing in on the fourth concession. These transactions give U.S. companies potentially rich new oil reserves, and the Chevron deal alone marks the largest concession in Liberia's history, according to one of the diplomatic cables.
What happened after the alleged bribes became public is a tale of compromise and competing priorities that shows how hard it is to root out alleged corruption even when a Nobel-laureate president has made that one of her main goals and even when the United States has poured more than $84 million since 2007 into good governance and anti-corruption programs.
Chevron declined to discuss its investment in detail but provided a statement saying that the company's "engagement with the Liberian Government in relation to our blocks has been made in accordance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements." ExxonMobil declined to comment in detail but said its agreement is subject to due diligence.