By Tokunbo Adedoja and Tobi Soniyi
The United States of America has secured a restraining order against more than $3 million in corruption proceeds linked to former Delta State Governor, James Onanefe Ibori. Ibori is currently serving a 13-year jail term in the United Kingdom.
The restraining order coincided with an order by a Federal High Court in Abuja yesterday, for a temporary forfeiture of $15 million (about N2.5 billion) the former governor allegedly gave to the erstwhile chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, as bribe in 2007.
The US also said it was working with the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police Service to forfeit the corruption proceeds.
Announcing this on Monday, Assistant Attorney General, Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director, John Morton, said the restraining order came through an application to register and enforce two orders from UK courts.
The order, as secured, prevents Ibori and his associates from entering his mansion in Houston, Texas, or operating two Merrill Lynch brokerage accounts.
The application, which seeks to restrain assets belonging to Ibori and his former lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil, in the US that were proceeds of corruption, was filed under seal on May 16, 2012, in a US District Court in the District of Columbia.
Though District Judge, Royce Lamberth granted the application and issued a restraining order under seal five days after the application was made, the Justice Department was notified on Monday to unseal the restraining order.
The restraining order covers a mansion in Houston and two Merrill Lynch brokerage accounts.
In the application, Ibori was accused of misappropriating millions of dollars in Delta State funds and laundering those proceeds through a myriad of shell companies, intermediaries and nominees in several jurisdictions with the help of Gohil.
Gohil was sentenced by a British court to a 10-year jail term for money laundering and prejudicing a money laundering investigation. Ibori, who served as governor between 1999 and 2007, was also accused of accumulating millions of dollars in assets in the US and UK, along with his associates, despite the Nigerian constitution’s prohibition of state governors from maintaining foreign bank accounts and serving as directors of private companies. Breuer said: “Instead of working to benefit the people of the Nigerian Delta, Governor Ibori pilfered state funds and accumulated immense wealth in the process.”
The Justice Department official said Ibori conspired with Gohil to funnel millions of dollars in corruption proceeds out of Nigeria, into bank accounts and assets maintained in the names of shell companies and nominees.
“Through the Criminal Division’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, our message is clear: the United States will not be used as a safe haven for the ill-gotten gains of corrupt foreign officials,” Breuer said.
On his part, Morton said: “This serves as a warning to those corrupt foreign officials who abuse their power for personal financial gain and then attempt to place those funds in the US financial system.”
He added that US would continue to “investigate and prosecute those involved in such illicit activities and hold corrupt foreign officials accountable by denying them the satisfaction of their illegal earnings.”
US government also called on individuals with information about possible proceeds of foreign corruption located in or laundered through institutions in US to send an e-mail to email@example.com.
The Ibori case, which is part of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, was investigated by ICE HSI’s Foreign Corruption Investigations Group, HSI Asset Identification and Removal Group in Miami and HSI Attaché London.
In a related development, a Federal High Court in Abuja yesterday ordered a temporary forfeiture of $15 million (about N2.5 billion) that Ibori allegedly gave to Ribadu as bribe.
The court also ordered the EFCC to publish in a national newspaper the interim order of forfeiture to allow anyone who is interested in the property to appear before the court to show cause within 14 days why a final order of forfeiture should not be granted in favour of the Federal Government.
The order was made at the instance of Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, who filed the ex-parte application on behalf of the EFCC. The Federal Government, Attorney-General of the Federation and the EFCC were listed as the plaintiffs, while the Central Bank of Nigeria was listed as the sole defendant.
The Federal Government premised the application for forfeiture on five grounds: that the cash in the sum of $15 million was received by the officers of the EFCC from an undisclosed agent of Ibori in 2007 as a bribe to compromise its investigation.
Secondly, the commission averred that on April 26, 2007 it deposited the said cash into the strong room No. 1 of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Thirdly, that Ibori had since denied giving the said cash to the commission or any of its officer. EFCC said the money has remained unclaimed since April 2007 to date and that the money has remained dormant in the strong room of the CBN and unclaimed by anyone.
The application for forfeiture was supported by a 14-paragraph affidavit deposed to by Mr. Bello Yahaya, a police officer with the EFCC. Bello said he was one of the investigators assigned by EFCC to investigate James Ibori’s case and by virtue of his position he was familiar with the facts of the case.
Paragraph 4 of the affidavit reads: “While the investigation was on going on 25th April, 2007 Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the then Executive Chairman of the EFCC called the investigation team headed by Ibrahim Lamorde, the then Director of Operations, to pick up cash in the sum of $15 million given to him and the commission through an undisclosed agent of the said James Ibori.”
He averred that while the Ibori trial was going on in Nigeria, he deposed to an affidavit to oppose Ibori’s application for bail on the grounds that Ibori had once offered a bribe to the EFCC. According to him, Ibori in his counter-affidavit dated January 10 2008, denied giving the sum of $15million to EFCC or any of its officials.
“That ever since April, 2007 no one has claimed ownership of the said sum and has since remained unclaimed money in the strong room of the CBN.
“That the said sum if left untouched and unspent in the state it was kept in the strong room since April 2007 may eventually be destroyed, defaced, mutilated and become useless,” he added.