A Danish film about alleged corruption in Liberia allowing businessmen to buy
diplomatic titles has developed into a war of words between the film’s
producer and authorities in Liberia and a lawyer who allegedly received
payment for introductions.
Varney Sherman, one of Liberia’s top lawyers, who holds a senior honorary
position in President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s party, has firmly denied
having taken a USD35,000 payment in order to help secure a diplomatic title
for the Danish film-maker Mads Brügger.
Brügger’s film The Ambassador purports to show how the purchase of a
diplomatic title from Liberia would enable him to export blood diamonds from
the Central African Republic. Brügger never actually succeeded in exporting
diamonds from the CAR.
E-mail exchanges between Sherman and Brügger, of which Politiken has copies,
seem to show that Sherman broke off cooperation with Brügger and returned a
“Those funds are available at your convenience for disposition as you wish,”
the lawyer writes to Brügger.
See the e-mail exchanges here
That particular piece of information has been left out of Brügger’s film,
which suggests that the lawyer is one of the main actors in Brügger’s
attempts to buy Liberian diplomatic status.
“If I had had the slightest feeling as to what type he really was, I wouldn’t
have touched him with a barge pole. I think he’s an idiot and I don’t
understand his mission,” Varney Sherman tells politiken.dk, adding he does
not think it is worth suing Brügger. The Liberian government has said
several times recently that it would be taking Brügger to court.
“I don’t think it’s worth it, as it would simply give him exposure that he
does not deserve and which he would use to become more famous. He’s a
swindler and what would Liberia win by spending money on a court case,”
In The Ambassador, Brügger – who is currently head of the 24seven radio
station – employs the services of a Dutchman to help him get the title of
Liberian consul to the Central African Republic.
Among other issues, the Dutchman arranges a meeting with between Brügger and
Sherman, who the film suggests is able to pull political strings to secure a
“After a few days at the hotel in Monrovia I met Varney Sherman who – as they
say in Liberia – is The Man. He is Liberia’s leading business attorney.
Mærsk hired him to help them take over the Monrovia free port and he is also
the leader of President Ellen Johnson’s Unity Party. Not a man to cross
swords with,” Mads Brügger says in the film.
Brügger has audio sequences of the lawyer ringing directly to the foreign
minister who promises to further the case.
“For this, I was to give Sherman USD35,000 as a secret contribution to the
upcoming presidential election,” Brügger continues in the film and clips
over to a scene in which a civil servant assures Brügger that a happy
Sherman has received an envelope with money.
But Sherman tells Politiken.dk that the interpretation is wrong, although he
admits receiving money, but only as payment for acting as a lobbyist.
“He came in with another European because he wanted to be the Liberian consul
to Denmark – which he later changed to the Central African Republic. They
asked me to lobby and use my contacts to get the post,” Sherman says.
Is this something you normally offer to do?
“Yes. I am a business attorney and also do lobbying for my clients. The post
of consul can be given to any businessman of standing in places where
Liberia does not have an ambassador,” he says.
Are you able to do this type of lobbying at the same time as being party
“Yes, the chairmanship is an honorary title, not an employment,” Sherman says,
angrily denying that the funds were to go to the presidential party. He adds
that he had not wanted money up front as it was uncertain that his efforts
would be productive.
“I told him that because this was a government issue he would have to go
through a security check, be approved by the Foreign Ministry and even be
approved by the president. All of this is necessary and objective and not
something that I can influence,” he says, adding that candidates would be
checked through Interpol.
But what did he need you for then?
“I have political connections. I can lobby and use my influence. But I cannot
ensure him the title and so I said that I didn’t want a payment until it was
successful,” Sherman says.
And what was your salary to be?
That was not decided. He said that he had brought along USD35,000 which he had
had difficulty in getting in and was not happy with having to get out again.
So he wanted me to keep it for him and use it for any costs that might
accrue,” Sherman says.
In the film, documentation is again presented to show that Varney Sherman took
the money as a bribe.
But the film’s producer has told Politiken.dk he found it strange that the
lawyer did not produce an invoice or receipt for the amount.
“I was only to be paid if it was successful and I only kept the money because
he was unable to take it out again. It was a question of trust,” Sherman
says, adding his normal fee was USD250 per hour and a normal payment in this
sort of case would have been USD15-20,000.But the combination of Brüggers
change of mind as to where he wanted to be consul, a political reshuffle in
the Liberian government and a presidential trip abroad delayed attempts to
secure a diplomatic title.
At the same time, Brügger, who used his original name of Cortzen in the film,
became more and more impatient in his e-mails to the Liberian attorney.
“Mr. Cortzen pushed me to get his appointment quicker than normal. In one of
his mails to me he suggests that I was not effective. That made me answer
immediately that under the circumstances I had to break off the cooperation
and I asked him to come and pick up his money,” Sherman says.
Sherman’s explanation is confirmed by an e-mail between the two in which the
Danish film producer says that one of the Dutchman’s partners will arrive
soon to pick up the money.
Politiken.dk has also spoken to Abraham Swaray who confirms that he collected
a cheque for the full amount, which he drew and gave to the Dutchman.
According to the Dutchman, Brügger sanctioned the use of the money for travel
and other expenses in connection with three further trips to Liberia to
secure a title for Brügger – a statement that Politiken.dk is unable to
“I became offended when Mr. Cortzen suggested that I was slow. I am a
professional attorney and have successfully lobbied and practiced in this
country for 32 years. I had never been accused of such a thing before and
would not accept it at any price,” Sherman says.
Brügger accepts that he deposited the funds with Sherman, saying that they
secured him a meeting at the Liberian foreign ministry where Sherman had
‘put in a good word for him’, the producer says in an e-mail to Politiken.dk.
“Whether this documents corruption or not can always be argued, but I think it
is interesting that for USD35,000 up front can get a meeting with the acting
foreign minister,” Brügger says, adding that he has a letter from Sherman,
written on the presidential party’s notepaper in which he writes that
Brügger is in the process of becoming a Liberian consul.
Asked why the film only includes insinuations against the attorney and no
recordings or other documentation proving bribery, Brügger says that it all
took place away from the camera in a restaurant.
“He told me that Ellen Johnson, the president, has asked all Liberia’s
honorary consuls to chip in to her election fund – suggesting that the
35,000 dollars is to be used to get her re-elected. I don’t have this on
tape, but my production manager Eva Jacobsen was at the dinner and can
confirm what happened,” Brügger writes.
Contrary to Sherman’s explanation, Brügger says that he was the one –
following advice from his Dutch cooperating partner, sacked the Liberian
attorney as he had fallen out of political favour.
“In other words he had lost his influence and was unable to deliver,” Brügger
writes adding that as a result he had the USD35,000 picked up from the
That version, however, is at odds with one of the e-mails between Brügger and
Sherman in which the latter begs the attorney to continue.
“Please Sir, with all respect, I urge you; lets not terminate our cooperation
when we are this close to reachng the target,” the e-mail says.
“Also I am sorry if you feel I havebeen putting stress on you - this was not
my intention. So provided I can still count on your kind and professional
assistance, which I very much hope, I will leave my funds in your possension
until we reach a final conclusion - and lets make it a positive one,”
Brügger has confirmed the general authenticity of the e-mails although he
feels some of them seem edited.
The fact that the film does not report Varney Sherman returning the USD35,000
and breaking off cooperation – despite the film energetically building him
up as a corrupt, elite Liberian, Brügger puts down to storytelling technique.
But although he is unable to document his allegation, Brügger is certain that
the money was eventually used to bribe the former Liberian Foreign Minister
“Back in Denmark again I am told that my appointment has finally gone through
and I get my diploma and letter of appointment signed by McIntosh and Ellen
Johnson,” Brügger writes, reasoning that he must have bribed someone with
The fact that it is not Attorney Varney Sherman as claimed is not particularly
important according to Brügger.
“The fact that it is not in the film is because it was too complicated to
explain, and the film, as such, is a simplified presentation of the above,”
In a later e-mail he adds:
“What is important for me is that at the end of the day I got my diploma and
letter of appointment – which Ellen Johnson has admitted,” Brügger writes.
He has declined to be interviewed.
“I have no wish to enter into a discussion with them – and certainly not
through Politiken,” Brügger writes.
Sherman says that he dropped the case completely when he broke off cooperation
with Brügger and is unable to say how he became a Liberian consul.
“I don’t know. He said he was a Danish businessman who could use an
appointment as Liberian consul to get Danish businessmen to invest in
Liberia,” Sherman says.
“It was when the foreign minister said that there was already a consul in
Denmark that he suggested the Central African Republic. Mr. Cortzen said
that because of his connections he would still be able to get investment
from Denmark to Liberia,” he adds.
But how is it possible that the Liberian authorities did not discover that he
was a Danish media man?
“I really don’t know. I broke off the relationship before the intelligence
service had finished their background check and I have not subsequently
looked into the case,” Sherman says.
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