EFCC, Usoro Tangle over ‘Attorney’s Privilege’

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  • Usoro: Judicially, historically, issues of fees between lawyer, client, matter of privilege
  • EFCC: NBA President has questions to answer

By Alex Enumah in Abuja

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC), yesterday, insisted the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro, has a case to answer over the N1.4 billion paid his law firm as professional fees by the Akwa Ibom State Government.

Usoro said the fees were for him and “other eminent members of the Inner Bar and to a host of other members of the Outer Bar” whom he had engaged to work with him in respect of several dispute resolution matters for the state’s government.

In a speech at the NBA National Executive Committee meeting held on December 6, 2018 in Abuja, Usoro agreed that he had “been questioned by the EFCC in the last several months in respect of fees that my firm had been paid by Akwa Ibom State Government (AKSG) between 2015 and 2016 and also fees that Governor Udom Emmanuel, the Governor of Akwa Ibom State had paid me for the benefit of Counsel that worked on his Election Petition Appeal that was decided by the Supreme Court early in 2016.”

He said the investigation of the professional fees that were paid to his firm or through them to some other counsel “has very serious and far-reaching implications for all of us and the practice of our profession,” which he urged them not to ignore.”

He explained some dire implications for client-lawyer privilege, saying “It has judicially and historically been acknowledged that issues of fees, as between a lawyer and his client are a matter of privilege.

He said the EFCC lacked locus standi in Client-Lawyer contractual relationship, adding that “there is no provision in Nigeria’s statute books that constitutes the EFCC into the auditor of legal fees.”

He added that “the EFCC appears to be straining quite hard to criminalise the fees that are earned by lawyers for their legitimate work,” stating that his was not the first of these intrusions. “We recall the case of Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, when the EFCC attempted to forfeit his fees on the pretext that the funds came from illegal sources.”

Usoro also stressed the independence of legal profession and practice, stating that the practice of law was founded on the independence of the legal practitioner and his courage to advocate on behalf of his client to the best of his ability and conviction, saying “that independence and the courage to advocate are now being threatened and trampled upon by the EFCC.”

Few months back, Usoro had confirmed, in a letter dated 05 June 2018, to the Head, Bank Fraud Section of the EFCC that “the payments-on-account were made by the Akwa Ibom State Government in respect of several dispute resolution matters that we handled and are still handling for the State.”

Attaching what he described as a “non-exhaustive list of these matters,” the SAN then added that “the outstanding fees due to us from the State Government in respect of these matters is far in excess of what has so far been paid on account and prior to your letter, we have been in the process of reconciling and settling accounts with the State Government.”

Reacting yesterday to Usoro’s speech at the NBA meeting, the EFCC in a statement by its acting spokesman, Tony Orilade said, “From the foregoing and in line with the mandate of the Commission, the SAN definitely has questions to answer before a competent court of jurisdiction on allegation of money laundering and no amount of intimidation and or razzmatazz can stop the Commission from carrying out legitimate assignment of investigation and prosecution of financial impropriety.

“The act of making such humongous payment of over a billion naira to an individual from state vault raises reasonable suspicion of money laundering. This may amount to a disservice to the people of Akwa Ibom state, and we shall not rest on our oars and allow such financial crime to continue unabated. Paul Usoro, SAN, surely has a case to answer.”

The statement further quoted Usoro to have said that the payments were “independent transactions and the Akwa Ibom State Government’s payments-on-account were in respect of my firm’s professional services to the State, while the payments to the senior counsel were made by me for and on behalf of Gov. Udom Emmanuel, at his request.”

The EFCC argued that, while not disregarding such relationship, payment of over N1.4 billion to Usoro from the account of Akwa Ibom State Government for unofficial transaction was nothing short of criminal diversion of public funds.