How ‘$5000 Gift’ Cost VOA Staff Their Jobs

Sunday Trust - - FRONT PAGE - By Nu­rud­deen M. Ab­dal­lah (Abuja) & Habibu Umar Aminu (Katsina)

When the del­e­ga­tion of Katsina State Gov­er­nor Aminu Masari saun­tered into the Hausa sec­tion of the Voice of Amer­ica (VOA) in Wash­ing­ton DC in Jan­uary 9, 2018, none of the over 15 staff he met had a pre­mo­ni­tion that the gov­er­nor’s visit was preg­nant with so much trou­ble that may lead to their un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous sack.

The in­ter­view was con­ducted and the gov­er­nor’s en­tourage was taken round the ex­pan­sive of­fice of the Amer­ica’s for­eign broad­cast­ing agency.

As the gov­er­nor en­tered his car, one of the Katsina State se­nior of­fi­cials on the en­tourage handed down “a brown en­ve­lope” con­tain­ing $5000 to one of the VOA staff that walked them their car.

Gov­er­nor Masari’s spokesper­son Mr Abdu Labaran, how­ever, de­nied that his prin­ci­pal had given any money to the VOA staff dur­ing the visit.

But mul­ti­ple sources told, Daily Trust on Sun­day that the ‘North-West gov­er­nor’ re­ferred to by the VOA was the Katsina gov­er­nor.

The gov­er­nor’s “gift” was sub­se­quently shared to all the Hausa Ser­vice staff on duty at that time. And ev­ery­one went back to work. Some of the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the gift in­clude Sa­habu Imam Aliyu, Jum­mai Ali, Ladan Ayawa, Ibrahim Jar­mai, Ab­doulaziz Adili Toro, Ibrahim Alfa Ahmed, among oth­ers.

There was no any sign of trou­ble over the gov­er­nor’s ‘gift’ un­til when the head of the Hausa Ser­vice who was on leave in Nige­ria at that time re­turned and de­cided to be a whistle­blower.

Mr Leo Ken wrote a pe­ti­tion to the VOA man­age­ment over the gov­er­nor’s “im­proper pay­ment” to his col­leagues.

The fed­eral law in the United States pro­hibit VOA jour­nal­ists from tak­ing any money in ex­cess of $20 in their line of duty.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion was sub­se­quently launched over the “gift.” On Oc­to­ber 2, the VOA an­nounced that it has fired or pro­posed to ter­mi­nate 15 staff of its Hausa lan­guage ser­vice fol­low­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that found the in­di­vid­u­als had ac­cepted im­proper pay­ments from a for­eign of­fi­cial in West Africa.

Direc­tor of VOA, Amanda Ben­nett, in­formed the Amer­i­can­funded ra­dio sta­tion staff of the move in an agency-wide email.

“It is there­fore with a very heavy heart that I must tell you that we have ter­mi­nated or (in ac­cor­dance with all ap­pli­ca­ble Fed­eral laws and reg­u­la­tions) pro­posed to ter­mi­nate 15 mem­bers of the Hausa Ser­vice,” she wrote.

The direc­tor said the ac­tion was taken af­ter si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions by VOA staff and the Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral into “al­le­ga­tions of im­proper con­duct by mem­bers of the ser­vice, which in­volved accepting im­proper pay­ments from an of­fi­cial in the cov­er­age area.”

The Hausa ser­vice of the VOA reaches some 20 mil­lion peo­ple weekly, prin­ci­pally in Nige­ria but also in Niger, Ghana, Chad and Cameroon.

The 15 staff in­volved, in­clud­ing Mr Ken (who is not sus­pected on per­son­ally accepting a pay­ment), were met at the front door of VOA head­quar­ters on a fort­night ago, and they were stripped of their build­ing passes and handed let­ters no­ti­fy­ing them of the ac­tion.

Re­ports said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­duced no ev­i­dence that any pro­gram­ming was af­fected by the al­leged pay­ments.

Mr Ken, ac­cord­ing to Daily Trust on Sun­day find­ings, got into trou­ble for al­legedly get­ting in­volved into “sundry il­le­gal fi­nan­cial ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Some of his “of­fenses” in­clude pad­ding of the rent fee of the Abuja of­fice, il­le­gal de­duc­tions of salaries of part-time staff, pay­ments of ghost stringers, among oth­ers.

It was learnt fur­ther that in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the Fed­eral Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tions (FBI) were in Nige­ria to un­ravel the pad­ding of the of­fice rent. They also spoke to so many part -time staff who were en­gaged by Mr Ken and forced them to send him some huge part of their monthly pay.

Some of the staff were even flown to the Wash­ing­ton DC by VOA to tes­tify be­fore in­ves­ti­ga­tors over the mat­ter. An­other source told Daily Trust on Sun­day that in the past, some VOA jour­nal­ists were fired for “us­ing of­fice tele­phones for per­sonal calls.”

Ben­nett, how­ever, said in her email that “a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been launched to de­ter­mine if any cov­er­age by VOA was im­prop­erly in­flu­enced. If any such in­flu­ence is dis­cov­ered, we will deal with it promptly and trans­par­ently.”

She added that, “If any other in­stances of im­proper pay­ments are dis­cov­ered in any ser­vice any­where in VOA, we are com­mit­ted to in­ves­ti­gat­ing them thor­oughly and deal­ing with them promptly as well.”

‘Re­ceiv­ing ‘gifts’ from news mak­ers not al­lowed’

The Africa Divi­sion direc­tor Ne­gussie Menge­sha said VOA staffers “clearly un­der­stand that that is not al­lowed.”

With this de­vel­op­ment, the ser­vice is left with only 11 per­ma­nent gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees and con­trac­tors to pro­duce 16 hours of ra­dio and 30 min­utes of tele­vi­sion ev­ery week. The African direc­tor said the agency in­tends to main­tain its cur­rent pro­gram­ming sched­ule with the help of an ex­ten­sive net­work of part-time con­trib­u­tors in Africa. The VOA an­nounced that a for­mer Hausa Ser­vice chief, Fred Cooper, will re­turn to run the ser­vice un­til a per­ma­nent chief is se­lected.

The ter­mi­nated em­ploy­ees will be re­placed quickly and that the new staff will re­ceive rig­or­ous train­ing in jour­nal­ism ethics, Menge­sha said.

It was clear that some of the em­ploy­ees can­not be re­placed un­der fed­eral reg­u­la­tions un­til a lengthy ter­mi­na­tion process is com­pleted.

Ben­nett said “ev­ery per­son in this build­ing knows the fed­eral laws and the stan­dards of eth­i­cal jour­nal­ism. Peo­ple will see [from Tues­day’s fir­ings] that we take these things very very se­ri­ously. Ev­ery­one will see what we ex­pect of them.” Brown en­ve­lope syn­drome The act of col­lect­ing money from gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als in Nige­ria dur­ing news cov­er­age is very com­mon even though it is not le­gal.

Sources fa­mil­iar with the is­sue said that al­most all “gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from Nige­ria that visit VOA drop some money af­ter the en­counter. That is the tra­di­tion. That doesn’t mean that it was so­licited by the jour­nal­ists. The fact is: of­fi­cials give the money, and the jour­nal­ist col­lect it,” the source who de­clined be­ing named.

Masari didn’t give money to VOA staff - Aide

Se­nior Spe­cial As­sis­tant to Masari, Mr Labaran Sa’id, ve­he­mently de­nied that his prin­ci­pal gave the gift that swept away the 15 staff.

“As far as we are con­cerned, it was not Gov­er­nor Masari, be­cause none of those in­volved men­tioned that Gov­er­nor Masari gave them money, that is my po­si­tion.

“It couldn’t have been Gov­er­nor Masari be­cause it was a con­fes­sion from them. They said a gov­er­nor from North-West, so it could be any of the seven gov­er­nors from the North­West. This is my po­si­tion. No­body men­tioned Masari for sure,” Mr Labaran in­sisted.

The gov­er­nor’s spokesper­son, how­ever con­firmed that Masari had been to the United States re­cently.

“The gov­er­nor has been to the US a cou­ple of times to the best of my knowl­edge. But I can­not re­call any in­ci­dent of that na­ture. Un­less some­body comes out among them and say it was Masari who gave the money, oth­er­wise the po­si­tion is clear it was not him,” he said.

Voice of Amer­ica’s of­fice in Wash­ing­ton DC, USA

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