“I am not guilty, my Lord.” These were the words of Dr Stephen Kwabena Opuni, the immediate past Chief Executive Officer of the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), when he appeared before the Accra High Court yesterday to answer charges of causing financial loss of GH¢271.3 million to the state.
Also pleading ‘not guilty’ was the businessman, Seidu Agongo, who has been accused by the Attorney-General (A-G) of using fraudulent means, with the alleged assistance of Dr Opuni, to dupe the state of the said amount in a fertiliser deal.
It is the case of the A-G that between 2013 and 2016, Opuni and Agongo allegedly engaged in various illegalities which resulted in the supply and distribution of substandard fertilisers to cocoa farmers and caused the financial loss of GH¢271.3m to the state.
The two men pleaded ‘not guilty’ to all the 27 charges.
Opuni pleaded ‘not guilty’ to three counts of abetment of crime relating to defrauding by false pretence, three counts of wilfully causing financial loss to the state and seven counts of contravention of the Public Procurement Act, 2003 (Act 663).
The former COCOBOD boss also pleaded not guilty to corruption of a public officer after the A-G had accused him of receiving a GH¢25,000 bribe from Agongo. Agongo, the Managing Director of Agricult Ghana Limited, an agro company, pleaded not guilty on behalf of himself and his company to defrauding by false pretence, money laundering, manufacturing of fertiliser without registration, selling of misbranded and adulterated fertiliser and bribing a public official with GH¢25,000.
The trial, which had been described by commentators as one of the biggest cases against a former government official, lived up to its hype and all the fanfare expected of a big trial.
It was a hearing that was intertwined with politics and many dramatic scenes.
Although the case was supposed to start at 12:30 p.m., by 9:30 a.m. yesterday Land Court 11, which hosted the trial, was full, with many supporters of Dr Opuni, presumably from his family and the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC).
Even before the commencement of the trial, a scuffle broke out in front of the courtroom after some of the supporters were denied entry into the courtroom.
That was after policemen had cleared the courtroom for security checks, only to deny some of Opuni’s supporters who were previously seated in the courtroom access back into the room.
“We are all Ghanaians”; “This courtroom is government property’’ and “You cannot sack me after I have been here for hours” were some of the expressions that greeted the security men who tried to prevent the supporters from entering the courtroom.
Calm, however, prevailed after more policemen rushed to the scene, while some NDC leaders pleaded with the supporters.
Security was very tight, as more policemen, in crowd control gear, took strategic positions on the court premises.
The political colouration of the trial was further enhanced by the many top officials of the previous administration and stalwarts of the NDC who trooped to the courtroom in support of their comrade (Dr Opuni).
They included a former Chief of Staff, Mr Julius Debrah; a former A-G, Mrs Marietta Brew Appiah-Opong; a former Fisheries Minister, Ms Sherry Ayitey; a former Deputy Information Minister, Mr Felix Kwakye-Ofosu; a former Energy Minister, Mr Emmanuel Armah Kofi-Buah, and a former Tourism Minister, Mrs Elizabeth Ofosu Agyare.
Also present were the General Secretary of the NDC, Mr Johnson Asiedu Nketiah; National Organiser of the NDC, Mr Kofi Adams; a former Chief Executive of the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, Mr Kojo Bonsu, among other officials.
The case also attracted many lawyers, all eager to witness the hearing, and many journalists.
The prosecution was represented by a group of 10 state lawyers, led by the A-G, Ms Gloria Akuffo, while three lawyers represented each of the accused persons.
Meanwhile, the court, presided over by Mr Justice C.J. Honyenuga, a justice of the Court of Appeal with additional responsibility as a High Court judge, granted Opuni and Agongo self -recognizance bail in the sum of GH¢300,000 each.
That was after the lawyers for the two — Mr Samuel Cudjoe (for Opuni) and Mr Benson Nutsukpui (for Agongo) — had made arguments in support of bail for their clients.
As part of the bail conditions, the court ordered the two accused to deposit their passports with the Director-General of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Ghana Police Service and also report to the CID boss anytime they intended to travel.
It further ordered the Director-General of the CID to report to the registrar of the court 48 hours after Opuni and Agongo had made any such report about travelling.
In a very lengthy presentation of the facts of the case, received with scorn by the all NDC stalwarts in the courtroom, Ms Akuffo said on May 15, 2013, COCOBOD forwarded Lithovit Folliar Fertiliser (LFF) samples presented by Agricult Limited to the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG) for testing.
The samples were in powdery form and supposed to go through two tests, including a field test, after which a certificate on the efficacy of the fertiliser must be issued by CRIG.
According to the A-G, the samples presented by Agricult went through the first test, after which CRIG issued a draft report, recommending that the LFF be applied to mature cocoa, even though no field test had been conducted on the samples, as required by law.
It was the case of the A-G that Dr Opuni, upon assumption of office in November 2013, directed that the testing of the fertiliser be shortened, which was against the laid down practice.
Dr Opuni, the A-G said, then wrote to Agricult in January 2014 that its LFF had been certified for use on cocoa.
“This happened even though Agricult never applied for a renewal of its initial certificate, as required by law. Its certificates were renewed repeatedly at the instance of the 1st accused (Opuni), without the necessary field tests,’’ she said.
Ms Akuffo explained that on January 19, 2014, Dr Opuni applied to the Public Procurement Authority (PPA) to allow Agricult Limited to single source the procurement of 700,000 litres of LFF, valued at $19,250,000, although the conditions for single sourcing had not been satisfied.
According to her, no price quotation had been submitted by Agricult to COCOBOD.
The fertiliser, she said, was in liquid form, even though what Agricult had submitted for testing was in powdery form.
According to her, on February 20, 2014, the PPA asked Dr Opuni to furnish the authority with the value-for-money analysis on his request.
Instead of presenting the analysis, the A-G said, Dr Opuni misrepresented to the PPA a certain document which, he claimed, meant Agricult was pre-qualified as of 2008.
Based on that, Ms Akuffo said, the PPA approved Dr Opuni’s request on February 26, 2014.
On December 10, 2014, she said, Dr Opuni made another request to the PPA to allow Agricult to single source another 700,00 litres of LFF at a cost of $19.95m, although conditions necessary for single source procurement had not been met.
Ms Akuffo accused Dr Opuni of repeating the same practice on October 15, 2015, that time around requesting the PPA to allow Agricult to single source 100,000 litres of LFF, at a cost of $26.5m.
All those requests, she said, were approved by the PPA.
Based on the approvals by the PPA, she said, COCOBOD executed three different contracts with Agricult on March 26, 2014, February 6, 2015 and December 31, 2015.
“Investigations revealed that the contracts were executed when Agricult did not have a certificate to supply fertiliser,’’ she explained.
According to the A-G, when the fertiliser arrived in the country, COCOBOD was required to notify CRIG to take samples for inspection, but it failed to do so.
Ms Akuffo said investigations conducted by COCOBOD in February 2017 revealed that what Agricult had initially presented to CRIG for testing was not the product it supplied to COCOBOD after the contracts were executed.
“In the course of the investigations, tests conducted revealed that the LFF supplied by Agricult to COCOBOD had been adulterated and did not meet the specific standard and that the product could not be used as folium nutrients on cocoa.
“Furthermore, investigations indicated that the LFF could be harmful to humans and animals, as well as hazardous to water,’’ she said.
The A-G said investigations further revealed that on October 10, 2014, Agongo “deposited GH¢25,000 into the account of 1st accused (Opuni) to influence the award of the contract to his company for the supply of LFF’’.