The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) said in Abuja today it had formally charged a United States based Nigerian lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye, to court for defrauding the Federal Government of one million, five hundred and fifty thousand US dollars. The crime was committed in the United States.
Agents of the State Security Services (SSS) arrested Mr. Ugwuonye last month at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.
A statement by EFCC spokesman Femi Babafemi said Ugwounye appeared before Justice Suleiman Belgore of the Federal High Court who ordered that he be remanded in EFCC custody until March 30, 2011 when trial will commence.
The charge reads: "That you Ephraim Emeka Ugwounye, sometimes between December 2007 and March 2011 at various places including Abuja, within the jurisdiction of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, being entrusted with the sum of $1,550,000.00 (One Million, Five Hundred and Fifty Thousand US Dollars) property of the Federal Government of Nigeria, dishonestly converted to your own use the said entire sum of $1,550,000.00 (One Million, Five Hundred and Fifty Thousand US Dollars) in violation of the agreement between you and the Federal Government of Nigeria through its Embassy in the United States and thereby committed an offence punishable under section 312 of the penal code Act , Cap.532, Laws of the Federation of (Abuja) 1990".
According to Mr. Babafemi, the EFCC also filed another charge against the accused at the High Court. He did not specify what that charge is, and no date has been fixed for Ugwuonye’s arraignment over that one.
Ugwuonye was arrested by agents of the State Security Services (SSS) on February 12 at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos and handed over to the EFCC for further action. The agency said the lawyer was "watch listed" after federal officials concluded that he had a case to answer in a series of real estate transactions with the Nigeria Embassy in Washington DC. In several reports in 2009, Saharareporters exposed how Mr. Ugwuonye had seized $1.7 million in tax refunds belonging to the embassy. Mr. Ugwuonye took hold of the funds following a business relationship in which he represented the embassy in the sale of several properties belonging to the Nigerian government. He claimed that the Nigerian government owed him fees for other legal services performed for it.
In an August 2008 letter to Mr. Ugwuonye Nigeria’s former ambassador to the United States, to whom the embassy had turned for help, had appealed to the lawyer “release the Embassy’s IRS refund without delay.”
Although Mr. Ugwuonye has been charged to court in Nigeria, Nigerian embassy officials, have dragged Mr. Ugwuonye before the Attorney Grievances Commission in the Maryland.
The embassy also instituted a lawsuit in the US district court in Washington DC against Mr. Ugwuonye and two partners who allegedly assisted him to seize the tax refund.