Property scandal rocks Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC; former Ambassador Obiozor has questions to answer over property he sold, and disparities in money and records.

How did Nigeria’s former Ambassador to the United States, Mr. George Obiozor sell properties belonging to the Nigerian Embassy in the Washington DC area?  Why are there vast disparities in the records of the sales?  Where are the tax refunds on the sold properties?

These questions have become the residual outcome of the recall of the Obiozor’s successor, retired army General Rotimi Oluwole.  Oluwole lost his job following an offensive memo he wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ojo Maduekwe, in which he alluded to his role in the tragic Biafra secession war that ended in 1970.

The embarrassing story of these questionable transactions is rocking the Nigerian diplomatic service in the United States.  Saharareporters has followed the controversy over the property sales meticulously and has unearthed facts which show that the sale of the properties by Ambassador Obiozor may have been anything but transparent.

Also at issue is the seizure of proceeds of tax returns on the properties by a Washington, DC lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye, for services for which he claimed the Nigerian authorities owed him unpaid fees.

Between August 2005 and April 2007, four choice properties belonging to the Nigerian embassy were sold by Ambassador Obiozor with approval from Abuja from one H.C. Osuagwu.   Another building, which was said to have been of a lower standard and but with a higher monetary value, was also purchased for the ambassador as his official residence.

These transactions, for which, include:
•    A property located at 3100 Woodlawn Avenue in Washington DC, which was sold in August 2005 for $3.25 million
•    A property located at 1333 16th street, across from the Ritz Hotel in Washington DC, which was sold for $7 million on May 31st 2006;
•    A property at 2201 M Street, Northwest, Washington DC, which was sold for $14.2 million, the biggest sale but there are no public records.
•    The Ambassador residence, at 6705 Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland, which was sold for $1.6 million in August 2007; a new replacement residence had been bought in April of the same year, four months earlier.

This is where the story becomes interesting.  A study of the public records that Saharareporters obtained from Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation reveals a huge discrepancy between the price listed as the sale price of the Ambassador’s former residence when it was sold in 2007, and the date of its sale. 

Similarly, the lawyer who handled the transaction, Emeka Ugwuonye, told Saharareporters that the former Ambassador’s residence in Chevy Chase, Maryland, was sold for $3.2 million in February 2007.  That differs from the publicly available records available to Saharareporters which shows that the house was sold on 1 August 2007 for $1.6 million to Edelen, Steve and Patricia Nava Edelen (an easy 50 per cent difference).  Sources told Saharareporters that the property was split into two and sold separately, with a batch of transactions clearly unreported in Maryland’s public records.

Also of interest is the new residence that was bought for the ambassador at 10 Stapleford Hall Court in POTOMAC, Maryland, for which Nigeria paid $2.7 million.  The old Ambassador’s house in Chevy Chase sat on a bigger land area of 2.17 hectares, and included such facilities as a swimming pool.

But the sale transactions also left 12 out of the 16 principal officers of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC, including the Deputy Chief of mission, having to go out and rent houses at exorbitant rates, Saharareporters has also learned. 

These transactions raise various levels of suspicion, including the quality of information made available in Washington DC public records at the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MIRS) regarding these properties.  For instance, two of the properties: the former Deputy Ambassador residence, 3100 Woodlawn Avenue, and 1333 16th Street in the North-western Washington DC area were listed, contracted for sale and the transaction closed on the same date- August 23 2005 and June 6 2006.

Further checks also reveal that the buyer of the Woodlawn property sold the house to another buyer in August 2008 three years later for over $6 million even as the housing market took a downturn in the US.  This lends credence to the allegation that the property may have been deliberately undervalued in 2005 when Obiozor sold it, as property values in the area did not double over that two-year period.  Besides, the property was never listed on the market, as the real estate property market database shows that the number of days it was on the market before being sold to have been zero (“0”).

Again, Maryland–based lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye, handled all the sales and purchase transactions. Real estate brokers told Saharareporters that a property-seller does not really need an attorney to sell their properties.  The engagement of Mr. Ugwuonye to offer expensive legal services to sell off Nigerian Embassy properties is therefore also uncalled for, and curious. A real estate Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc were fully involved in the sales, but calls made to the agent, Georgia McLaughlin to provide Saharareporters with the settlement form that outlines how individual actors were paid did not yield any results as Mr. McLaughlin did not return our call.

Mr. Ugwuonye confirmed to Saharareporters that he offered legal services for the sale of the four houses as well as the purchase of the Ambassador’s new house.  For his services Mr. Ugwuonye was paid a retainership of $700,000.  He told Saharareporters he was paid higher than that.

But Mr. Ugwuonye acted strangely when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) returned $1.55 million to the Nigerian mission in taxes it had withheld on the transactions.  This money remained in the hands of Mr. Ugwuonye.  After promising in a letter sent on December 11 2007 to Yusuff Abdullahi, head of chancery of Nigerian mission promising to send the funds by December 22 2007  , Mr. Ugwuonye reneged.

The lawyer later to wrote to the embassy through his   lawyers at Bruce Fein Associates that he had “applied” the tax refunds to legal services for which he was being owed by the Nigerian government in various litigations he engaged in on behalf of the government. Principally, Mr. Ugwuonye said he was owed legal fees from his defence of General Abdusalam Abubakar in the human rights litigations in Chicago.  That matter concerned the death of M.K.O Abiola at the hands of the retired army general while he was the military dictator in charge of Nigeria in 1998.

Ugwuonye further contended that Nigeria’s current Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, was in the know about his seizure of the embassy funds, stating that he had also written to Mr. Aondoakaa about it and that his understanding was that the AGF endorsed his actions because he never wrote back to reject his position.

When further prodded by Saharareporters, Mr. Ugwuonye revealed that the AGF, through a commitment made at the “out-of-court” settlement undertaken in London over the Abubakar case, had paid him some fees.  According to Mr. Ugwuonye, the AGF had also paid Mr. Kayode Oladele, who was counsel to Chief Enahoro and Hafsat Abiola, in line with the out-of-court settlement which he said could not be disclosed.

Ask to justify why he did not go after the Attorney General’s office for his balance instead of withholding the Nigerian Embassy tax returns, he told Saharareporters of how he met with Obasanjo in late 2006 to ask that they settle the human rights case involving Abubakar out of court.  Obasanjo, he said, refused to do so, noting that at the time, he was being owed $960,000.

He further revealed that Obasanjo requested the Attorney General of the Federation at the time, Chief Bayo Ojo to pay his fees, but that Ojo paid his legal fees into the wrong hands after he went ahead to sue the lawyers handling the case in Nigerian a bizarre legal move that backfired before the Chicago court. He claimed that the payments might have gone to one Babatunde Irukera, in a deal he said could not be properly explained since Irukera was not engaged directly in the Chicago case.  Saharareporters has reported previously that the son of a Nigerian Supreme Court justice handling Yar’adua’s election petition, Emmanuel Ogebe, was also paid some fees by the Nigerian government.

Mr. Ugwuonye has made trips to Nigeria during this period, and also remained in contact with former Ambassador Obiozor.  He said he apprised Obiozor of developments over his seizure of the embassy’s tax refunds, fuelling speculation that Obiozor tacitly approved the seizure for pecuniary reasons as he did not to try to retrieve the money from Ugwuonye before he left the US.

But Ugwonye’s seizure of the embassy funds points to a track record of some professional troubles relating to his competence and his manner of handling client monies. In 2008, two suspensions relating to professional misconducts were slammed against Mr. Ugwuonye by the Maryland Attorneys Grievances Commission barring him from practice of law for 90 days, effective August 23, 2008.  They arose from multiple violations of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct.
Details of the cases point to Ugwuonye’s professional shadiness.

Another punishment was also imposed by the state of New York, which suspended Ugwuonye from practice in the state for the same offences for which he was suspended in Maryland.  But Ugwuonye said his misconduct had more to do with the size of his law practice and not his professional competence. But the notes suspending him were clear that he was “incompetent.”  The Maryland Attorneys Grievance Commission stated while it was imposing the “90-day Suspension by the Court of Appeals on July 24, 2008 for failure to act with diligence and competence in representing a client by failing to respond to a notice of contemplated dismissal for lack of service.  With regard to another client, he took a fee for a frivolous case and failed to return an unearned fee (which he had deposited in his operating account).

The two cases for which Mr. Ugwuonye was suspended had to do with negligence and incompetence. In a particular case against him, the grievance commission found Ugwuonye liable for receiving $3,500 from Michael Etheridge, even though he knew his case was bad. Michael Etheridge had sued the Montgomery County Crime Solvers claiming $500,000, claiming he was entitled to a reward for information he provided concerning the notorious DC area snipers John Allen Mohammed and John lee Malvo. Etheridge’s second claim had to do with his claim that he possessed information as to the whereabouts of former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

But Honourable Michael J. Alego who presided over Ugwuonye’s case found him guilty of professional misconduct. In it, Judge Alego concluded that Ugwuonye was in violation of Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) 1.16(d) because he failed to return Mr. Etheridge fees upon termination of the representation. Quoting the 27-page court document, the court concluded that, “Given the totality of Ugwuonye’s actions; i.e., taking a meritless case, charging a fee that grossly outweighed the work accomplished, and the overall lack of communication with Etheridge,” Ugwuonye was “guilty of professional misconduct.”

Nigerian embassy officials are torn in different directions as gladiators in the dog–fight turn to primordial ethnic sentiments to the gain upper hand in deciding who controls the large pot of money comprising the proceeds from selling the embassy’s properties, an amount in the region of $25 million, although it not yet clear what the exact prices are recorded in Nigerian mission records regarding the sales.

Meanwhile, salaries of Nigerian diplomats in the United States fell behind again in January 2009, as is usually the case, and were not paid until last week.

In a housing situation that is somewhat similar to some of the events in Washington DC, Saharareporters has discovered that the Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations, Prof. Joy Ogwu, is also renting a property for $200, 000 per year in Purchase, an expensive suburb of New York City.  She reportedly rejected the sprawling official residence of Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in a glitzy part of Tarrytown, New York, because she considers it “unfit for her status.”

 

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