- As US court orders Air Peace boss’ arrest over fraud, money laundering
- Freezes $14.2m in bank accounts
- Onyema dismisses allegations as strange, unfounded
- Eghagha: I’ll vigorously defend myself
By Tobi Soniyi and Chinedu Eze
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, has said the United States is yet to notify the Nigerian authorities of the indictment of the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace Limited, Chief Allen Onyema, in the United States on allegations of fraud and money laundering. Malami told THISDAY last night by telephone that the U.S. government had neither officially communicated Onyema’s indictment to Nigeria nor requested his arrest or extradition based on a mutual legal agreement on criminal matters between the two countries.
The AGF’s comments are the first official reaction to the indictment. This is coming on the heels of a report that a United States District Court in the Northern District of Georgia had issued a warrant of arrest against Onyema after his indictment on money laundering and bank fraud charges in the U.S.
According to court documents obtained by an online newspaper, PREMIUM TIMES, the warrant was signed by an American magistrate, Justin Anand, on November 19. It authorised the U.S. Marshals Service to immediately take Onyema into custody for questioning.
Consequently, the report also said, the United States authorities had frozen about $14.2 million in different bank accounts linked to companies registered by Onyema.
But Malami said he was yet to receive any communication or request for Onyema’s arrest or extradition to the United States following his indictment by a grand jury in Atlanta Georgia.
“We have not received any request from the United States based on existing Mutual Legal Assistance between both countries,” the AGF stated.
Asked whether Nigeria would accede to a such request if received, Malami said, “It would be subjected to justifiable, objective legal analysis and review to evaluate the evidence, just like any other such request based on MLA between Nigeria and United States,” he declared.
Article I of the Mutual Legal Assistance states as follows – Scope of Assistance
1. The Contracting Parties shall, upon request and in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty, provide mutual assistance in connection with the investigation, prosecution, and prevention of crimes, and in proceedings related to criminal matters.
2. Such assistance shall include:
a) taking the testimony or statements of persons;
b)providing documents, records, and articles of evidence;
c) serving documents;
d) locating and identifying persons;
e) transferring persons in custody for testimony or other purposes;
f) executing requests for searches and seizures;
g) tracing, identifying, and immobilizing criminally obtained assets;
h) assisting in proceedings related to forfeiture, restitution, and collection of fines; and
i) any other form of assistance not prohibited by the laws of the Requested State.
3. Assistance shall be provided without regard to whether the conduct which is the subject of the investigation, prosecution, or proceedings in the Requesting State would constitute a crime under the laws of the Requested State.
Article II – Central Authorities
1. Each Contracting Party shall designate a Central Authority to make and receive requests pursuant to this Treaty.
2. For the United states of America, the Central Authority shall be the Attorney General or a person designated by him. For the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Central Authority shall be the Attorney General of the Federation or a person designated by him.
3. The Central Authorities shall communicate directly with each other for the purposes of this Treaty.
Article III – Limitations on Assistance
1. The Central Authority of the Requested State may deny assistance if:
a) a request is not in compliance with the provisions of this Treaty:
b) the request relates to a political offense:
c) the request relates to an offense under military law which would not be an offense under ordinary criminal law: or
d) the execution of the request would be contrary to the Constitution of the Requested State or would prejudice the security or other essential national interests of that state.
However, Onyema has denied the allegations against him, describing them as strange and unfounded. A statement by his solicitors, A.O. Alegeh & Co. Legal Practitioners, denied all the allegations and vowed that their client would defend himself against all allegations in the court of law.
Executive Director of Air Peace Limited, Ejiroghene Egbagha, who was charged alongside Onyema, has also vowed to defend herself against the fraud charges, insisting they are untrue.
The latest development is believed to be the fallout of a mutual legal assistance agreement entered into by the U.S. and Nigeria, which allows the two countries to extradite suspects facing criminal charges. Although it is unclear whether the US authorities have sought the extradition of Onyema as part of efforts to execute the warrant of arrest issued against him.
Already, some bank accounts linked to his company in the US and Canada have been frozen with their substantial balances as part of the investigation.
The court documents showed that $4,017,852.51 was seized from JP Morgan Chase Bank account number ending with 5512 held in the name of Springfield Aviation Company, LLC.
According to the document, another $4,593,842.05 in the Bank of Montreal, Canada, with account number ending with 7523 in the name of Springfield Aviation Inc. was also seized.
Similarly, the US government claimed it had traced and seized $5,634,842.04 in Bank of Montreal with account number ending with 515 in the name of Bluestream Aero Services, Inc.
Curiously, however, the US law enforcement authorities indicated in the charge document that efforts had commenced to secure final forfeiture of the funds, even when trial had not begun.
According to the statement by Onyema’s lawyer, “We hereby state that he (Onyema) strongly denies and will vigorously defend himself against the allegations made against him by the US Attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, in relation to purchase of aircraft, aircraft spares and aircraft maintenance.
“None of the allegations involve any third party funds but relate to his funds utilised in the airline business. There is no allegation that any Bank (in the United States, Nigeria or elsewhere), Company or individual suffered any financial or any loss whatsoever.”
The lawyers also noted that Onyema “has a track record built on honesty and integrity and will take all necessary steps to clear his good name and hard earned reputation. He looks forward to an opportunity to rebut these allegations in court.”
Earlier, while personally denying the allegations, Onyema said they were contrary to his character as a person and as a businessman.
He said, “I can confirm to you that all allegations are false and are in no way in line with my character as a person and as a business man whose only aim has been to build Nigeria and improve wellbeing.
“As the press statement clearly stated, these are indictments that only contain charges. I am innocent of all charges and the US government will find no dirt on me, because I have never conducted business with any illegalities.
“Rest assured that I also have my lawyers on this and these mere allegations will be refuted. I never laundered money in my life, neither have I committed bank fraud anywhere in the world. Every Kobo I transferred to the US for aircraft purchase went through the Central Bank of Nigeria LC regime and all were used for the same purpose.
“The American companies that received the funds are still in business. I never took a penny from any US bank or Nigerian bank. I am willing to defend my innocence in the US courts.”
Likewise, solicitors to Eghagha, while denying the allegations, said she will strongly defend herself. They said the allegations, which they termed spurious, could not destroy her hard-earned reputation.
The lawyers said in a statement, “Mrs. Ejiro Eghagha has built her reputation as a seasoned, honest and responsible person and will take all necessary steps to clear her good name and hard earned reputation. She looks forward to an opportunity to rebut these allegations in court.”
The US Department of Justice had on Friday stated in a statement signed by U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak, “Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, 56, of Lagos, Nigeria, and Ejiroghene Eghagha, 37, of Lagos, Nigeria, were indicted on November 19, 2019, on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud, and three counts of credit application fraud. Additionally, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, and Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft.
“Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud. We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”
The Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division, Robert J. Murphy, while commenting on the indictments, also stated, “Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud. He corrupted the U.S. banking system, but his trail of deceit and trickery came to a skidding halt. DEA would like to thank the many law enforcement partners and the subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”
Similarly, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office, Thomas J. Holloman, said, “This case is a prime example of why IRS-CI seeks to partner and leverage its expertise in an effort to thwart those seeking to exploit our nation’s financial system.
“With the importance of our banking system to the movement of money around the world, those attempting to use intricate schemes to commit bank fraud through the use of falsified documents and other means should know that the odds are now heavily stacked against them as law enforcement is combining its talents to protect the sanctity and integrity of the nation’s financial system.”
On his part, Special Agent in Charge, Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama, said, “Onyema set up various innocent sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.
“I’m proud to be part of a team of law enforcement agencies that come together to identify and attack criminals that attempt to profit from the exploitation of our nation’s financial systems.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment and other information presented in court read: “Onyema, a Nigerian citizen and businessman, is the founder and Chairman of several organisations that purport to promote peace across Nigeria, including the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Centre for Non-Violence and Peace Development, and All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited.
“Beginning in 2010, Onyema began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts. Between 2010 and 2018, over $44.9 million was allegedly transferred into his Atlanta-based accounts from foreign sources.
“Onyema is also the CEO and Chairman of Nigerian airline Air Peace, which he founded in 2013. In years following the founding of Air Peace, he traveled to the United States and purchased multiple airplanes for the airline. However, over $3 million of the funds used to purchase the aircraft allegedly came from bank accounts for Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited, and Every Child Limited.
“Beginning in approximately May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema.
“The letters of credit were purportedly to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace. The letters were supported by documents such as purchase agreements, bills of sale, and appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.
“However, the supporting documents were fake. Springfield Aviation Company LLC, which is owned by Onyema and managed by a person with no connection to the aviation business, never owned the aircraft, and the company that allegedly drafted the appraisals did not exist.
“Eghagha allegedly participated in this scheme as well, directing the Springfield Aviation manager to sign and send false documents to banks and even using the manager’s identity to further the fraud. After Onyema received the money in the United States, he allegedly laundered over $16 million of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts.
“Members of the public are reminded that the indictment only contains charges. The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
“The Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Commerce, and Department of Treasury are investigating this case.
“Assistant U.S. Attorneys Garrett L. Bradford, Deputy Chief of the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section and Lead Strike Force Attorney, Irina K. Dutcher, and Christopher J. Huber, Deputy Chief of the Complex Frauds Section, are prosecuting the case, with assistance from the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section and Office of International Affairs.
“This prosecution was brought as a part of the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) Co-located Strike Forces Initiative, which enables agents from different agencies to collaborate on intelligence-driven, multi-jurisdictional operations against a continuum of priority targets and their affiliate illicit financial networks.
“These prosecutor-led co-located Strike Forces capitalize on the synergy created through the long-term relationships that can be forged by agents, analysts, and prosecutors who remain together over time, and they epitomize the model that has proven most effective in combating organized crime.
“The specific mission of the Atlanta Strike Force is to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug trafficking and money laundering organizations designated as Consolidated Priority Organization Targets or Regional Priority Organization Targets and their affiliates impacting the Atlanta metropolitan area and the Northern District of Georgia.”