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Exclusive: Ecobank in row over anonymous email, hacking allegations

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

ACCRA (Reuters) - Pan-African lender Ecobank has sued a top executive who left the company this month, naming him in a civil complaint in Togo as the author of an anonymous email accusing Chief Executive Thierry Tanoh of mismanagement.

The executive, David Lawson, denied to Ecobank that he wrote the email and said he had been unfairly dismissed. He accused Ecobank executives including Tanoh of hacking his phone and email account in a fruitless search for evidence against him. The company denies wrongdoing.

The row comes as Ecobank tries to shore up confidence in its governance after a Nigerian industry watchdog began investigating the way it reported financial results. The bank's chairman quit last month, saying it wasn't appropriate for him to stay given the company's ongoing reviews of governance.

Ecobank has been viewed by investors as an African success story for its strong growth and expansion beyond its Togo base into 33 African countries. It made record profits last year.

One member of Ecobank's board told his colleagues in an email seen by Reuters that Lawson's hacking allegations were a cause for concern and could get the bank into trouble.

Lawson, who left as head of strategy on November 8, was a member of the Group Executive Committee that runs Ecobank and reports to its board.

A spokesman for Ecobank Transnational Incorporated (ETI), as the bank is officially known, declined to discuss the circumstances of Lawson's departure.

Lawson told Reuters on Monday: "In the panel's attempt to implicate me in this affair ...(it) resorted to the illegal acts of phone tapping, email hacking, stalking and invasion of privacy".

He said that at a disciplinary hearing about the email, fellow executives pressed him repeatedly to name board members who they suspected of being his accomplices in the matter. He called the hearing an "illegal kangaroo court".

Lawson said he had emailed Ecobank's executive committee and board on November 11, stating that he had a recording of the disciplinary hearing that showed the committee discussing details about him and his communications that it could only have obtained by hacking his email and bugging his phone.

LAWSUIT SAYS EMAIL TRACED TO GHANA CYBERCAFE

The bank's suit says Lawson wrote the anonymous email to senior executives on August 31 accusing Tanoh of paying himself an inflated bonus for work done in the months before he took office at the start of this year.

CEO Tanoh, a former vice president of the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, said in September he was forgoing any bonus as part of efforts to restore confidence given the Nigerian investigation.

The August 31 email, which is entitled "Major corporate governance issues at Ecobank" and has been seen by Reuters, said Ecobank was "at risk" because of poor leadership.

It was sent from a cybercafe in Ghana and police there have identified Lawson from a security video at the cafe at the time the email was sent, Ecobank said in its lawsuit.

The First Class Tribunal of First Instance in Togo's capital, Lome, has adjourned the case until February 14.

A South African member of Ecobank's board, Sipho Mseleku, contacted other board members on November 11 to express concern over Lawson's hacking allegations against the company.

"Such invasion of privacy is not only illegal but also criminal. This reminds me of Apartheid days in South Africa," Mseleku said in an email seen by Reuters.

"This is likely to put the institution in further trouble. The institution cannot solve problems through illegal means," Mseleku said. He did not respond to a request for comment and his email did not state explicitly that he believed Lawson's hacking allegations were accurate.

The Ecobank spokesman, Jeremy Reynolds, confirmed Mseleku's email and said: "I can give you a categorical denial that there has been any phone tapping or email hacking". Reuters was unable to determine how other board members responded to Mseleku's email.

(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos; editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Pfeiffer)

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