Usoro was docked before Justice Muslim Sule Hassan on a 10-count charge bordering on the alleged offence. He, however, pleaded not guilty to all the counts.
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) was yesterday arraigned by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) at a Federal High Court in Lagos for alleged N1.4 billion fraud.
Usoro was docked before Justice Muslim Sule Hassan on a 10-count charge bordering on the alleged offence.
He, however, pleaded not guilty to all the counts.
Prior to Usoro’s arraignment, his lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) and EFCC’s lawyer, Rotimi Oyedepo, were engaged in arguments for close to an hour on the propriety of taking his plea in view of his letter to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul-Kafarati, seeking transfer of the case.
On resumption of yesterday’s proceedings, Oyedepo told the judge that the charge had finally been served on the NBA president. He urged the court to allow his plea to be taken.
Responding to the request, Olanipekun said it was inappropriate for the EFCC’s lawyer to be talking about his client’s arraignment when he was aware that a letter seeking the transfer of the case is with the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.
“I owe a duty to advise the court that the defendant made available to his lawyers, a copy of a letter dated 17th December, 2018, addressed to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court praying for the transfer of the case to any judicial division between Uyo and Abuja or, if in Lagos, to any other judge apart from my lord presiding.
He further noted that the court has no jurisdiction to go into the merit of the letter as this will amount to pre-empting the Chief Judge.
He added that if the prosecution is not comfortable with the letter, it is at liberty to send a rejoinder to the Chief Judge.
In opposing Olanipekun’s submissions, Oyedepo said no objection can be raised by the defence until after the defendant’s arraignment.
He added that in view of the defendant’s presence in court unfettered, the next thing to do is to take his plea, saying the steps to be taken are captured in Sections 269 and 271 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015.
In a ruling on the contentious issue, the judge held that arraigning the defendant will not preclude the Chief Judge from taking a decision on the letter.
“The issue in my view is narrowed down. It is not in dispute that the power to assign and re-assign cases is exclusively vested in the Chief Judge. The Chief Judge, in exercising his power, had assigned the case to this court.
“Though the court does not have jurisdiction to start looking at the merit of the letter, but the fact that the plea of the defendant is taken does not preclude the Chief Judge from taking his decision,” he said.
The judge consequently ordered that the charge be read to the defendant.
Afterwards, Usoro’s lawyer, Olanipekun moved his bail application. He urged the court to admit his client to bail on self-recognizance.
In the absence of any opposition from the EFCC, the judge admitted Usoro to bail in the sum of N250 million with one surety who must not be below the rank of a Director in the public service in like sum.
Justice Hassan also ordered the NBA president to deposit his international passport at the court.
Further hearing in the matter was consequently adjourned to 5th February, 2019.
In the charge marked FHC/418c/18, the EFCC claimed that Usoro converted and laundered the money in connivance with Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State.