Saturday, 8 March 2014
US Appellate Court Dismisses Ugwuonye’s Libel Case Against SaharaReporters
The Fourth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, DC today threw out an appeal filed by Emeka Ephraim Ugwuonye, a controversial US-based attorney, against Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of SaharaReporters.
Mr. Ugwuonye’s case collapsed after he ignored the court’s order to file necessary documents to enable the appeal process to proceed.
Mr. Ugwuonye had filed the appeal after his initial defamation lawsuit was decisively dismissed late last year by a senior US District Judge, Peter J. Messitte. In the earlier ruling, Judge Messitte gave a comprehensive overview of the case in finding that Mr. Ugwuonye’s suit lacked merit. The judge ruled that the lawsuit stood on wobbly legs since the alleged libelous reports by SaharaReporters were substantially factual.
Mr. Ugwuonye, whose representation of the Nigerian embassy in some real estate deals is mired in controversy and legal dispute, had in 2009 filed a defamation lawsuit before the US District Court claiming that this website had libeled him. In addition, he asked the court to order SaharaReporters to pay $30 million for alleged assault, libel and slander in the website’s reports regarding his role in transactions where the Nigerian Embassy sold its properties in Washington, DC and Maryland. In an investigative exclusive, SaharaReporters revealed that Mr. Ugwuonye pocketed $1.55 million meant for the Nigerian embassy.
As the administrator of this website maintained, Mr. Ugwuonye’s lawsuit was filed with the goal of silencing SaharaReporters. Toward that end, the lawsuit included the host of SaharaReporters, a move meant to shut down the website’s domain name.
Last December, Justice Messitte handed down a comprehensive ruling that eviscerated Mr. Ugwuonye’s lawsuit. In a judgment that touched on every aspect of Mr. Ugwuonye’s claims, the judge ruled that the reports by SaharaReporters were substantially true. He subsequently dismissed Mr. Ugwuonye’s case following a summary judgement motion.
In a typical response to his devastating legal loss, Mr. Ugwuonye circulated a letter online where he misrepresented the judgment, including making false claims that the judge had agreed that SaharaReporters slandered him. Then, in a move that a lawyer familiar with the facts of the case described as “bizarre,” Mr. Ugwuonye headed for the Circuit Court in DC to challenge Judge Messitte’s ruling.
Following his appeal, the Circuit Court convened a mediation conference over the case. During the mediation, the attorneys for SaharaReporters lawyers, Laurie Babinski and Bruce Brown, indicated their readiness to respond to Mr. Ugwuonye’s appeal in court.
However, the appeal became a non-event as Mr. Ugwuonye failed to file the necessary paperwork to enable him to proceed with the case after the conclusion of the mediation conference.
On March 21, 2013, the Circuit Court gave Mr. Ugwuonye a deadline of April 8 to file a disclosure form, appearance form and docketing statement. In making the order, the court indicated that Mr. Ugwuonye’s failure to comply would result in dismissal of his appeal. Mr. Ugwuonye’s failure to respond to the court order led to today’s dismissal of his lawsuit.
In a separate but related development, a case instituted by the Nigerian Embassy to recover the $1.5 million pocketed by Mr. Ugwuonye from real estate transactions where he represented the embassy has also reached an advance stage, with Mr. Ugwuonye practically abandoning his defense of the case.
Mr. Ugwuonye had reportedly confiscated the funds which represented tax refunds from the US Treasury. The US government refunded the money to the embassy because the embassy, as a sovereign entity, was exempt from paying US taxes. As SaharaReporters earlier reported, Mr. Ugwuonye, who received the refund in his capacity as the embassy’s attorney, decided to keep it, contending later that the Nigerian government owed him for prior legal tasks. Nigerian government officials have asserted that Mr. Ugwuonye was not owed any outstanding fees. Besides, a US-based Nigerian attorney told SaharaReporters that, even if the Nigerian government owed Mr. Ugwuonye, he would not have been able to keep the $1.5 million tax refund without approval by a US judge.
Two other cases filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Nigeria against Mr. Ugwuonye are still pending. One case is in regard to Mr. Ugwuonye’s illegal conversion of funds belonging to the Nigerian Embassy in the US.
In another case, a certain Mr. Sola Adeeyo, a former client of Mr. Ugwuonye’s has brought a case in Nigeria accusing Mr. Ugwuonye of stealing $94,000 retrieved from a settlement between the former client and the US government. The case is pending on appeal in Nigeria.
The Nigerian Embassy as well as Mr. Adeeyo have filed bar complaints against Mr. Ugwuonye at the Attorney Grievances Commission in Maryland. The commission could impose severe professional sanctions on Mr. Ugwuonye if it finds that he engaged in unethical practice to the detriment of his clients.