BEIRUT — Lebanon’s Court of Audit’s decisions in two cases of squandering and misappropriation of public funds in the Telecommunications Ministry were published in the local press Friday. The court gave six successive telecoms ministers — Nicolas Sehnaoui, Boutros Harb, Jamal Jarrah, Mohammad Choucair, Talal Hawat, Johnny Corm — the legally prescribed 60 days to defend themselves in the two cases:
The first case concerns the lease of a disused building in Beirut’s Chiyah neighborhood, belonging to Jean Kassabian, on behalf of MIC 2 (Touch) for $10.5 million dollars.
The second case concerns the same operator’s lease and later “purchase on credit and with interest [thereby increasing the cost] without [the ministry] acquiring ownership” of two office blocks (block B and block C) in Beirut’s Bashoura neighborhood.
This report was delivered one year after the same court published an audit of this ministry’s accounts, which showed that the ministry had spent $17 billion between 2010 and 2020 — $6 billion of which took the form of excessive payments to Lebanon’s fixed and mobile telephone operators — Ogero, Alfa and Touch. According to the document, each cited minister may be subject to a “fine” calculated according to the seriousness of their criminal acts, once proven by this court at the end of its judicial proceedings.
The list of grievances
The grievances listed by the court’s new report include the following accusations against various ministers:
Nicolas Sehnaoui (2011-2014)
Signing a lease contract for the Kassabian building without calling a public tender and ignoring, without justification, his predecessor Charbel Nahas’ refusal to rent the same building on the grounds that it was “old, in unsuitable condition and too expensive.”
Wasting more than $10 million on renting the building, which the ministry never used.
Incurring lawsuits brought against MIC 2 by Jean Kassabian’s company, which could cost MIC 2, and therefore the public treasury, approximately $20 million.
Resuming the lease after the approval of the lease agreement on part of a second building in Bashoura (in the Beirut Digital District).
Boutros Harb (2014-2016)
Breaking the lease agreement on the Kassabian building without taking steps to recover public money, the waste of which he “clearly” had knowledge.
Failing to file a complaint concerning suspicions of waste with the financial prosecutor's office, limiting himself to a notification of these suspicions.
Failing to take any action against the operating company (Touch) when the chairman of its board of directors (Peter Kaliopoulos) reversed the decision to terminate the lease agreement, which represented a “violation of the powers of the Minister of Telecommunications.”
Jamal Jarrah (2016-2018)
Approving the lease contract of blocks B and C of the Bashoura building at a price almost 30 percent higher than the market rate, though its construction had not been completed.
Signing a contract with a company to complete the work and equip the building without calling for public tenders, and paying prices higher than the market rate.
Mohammad Shoucair (2019-2020)
Purchasing the Bashoura building for $73.7 million, including $45 million spread over three years (2020, 2021, 2022), in addition to interest equivalent to $5.1 million over this period paid by the public purse.
Failing to order the payment due on Jan. 15, 2020, which could result in a coercive fine of “$15,000 per day of delay.”
Talal Hawat (2020-2021) and Johnny Corm (2021 -...)
Failing to follow-up on the above-mentioned payment (the second installment to be paid on Jan. 15, 2021, under Talal Hawat and the third on Jan. 15, 2022, under Johnny Corm).