Business - Investigations - News - November 30, 2021

N170m FIRS contract fraud: Again, Attorney General orders DPP to take over police prosecution of petitioner against suspects

The directive by the AGF is the latest in a string of victories by a firm and its proprietor in their quest for justice over persecution by the police in alliance with a powerful fraud syndicate  

By Bassey Udo

For the second time since 2016, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, has ordered the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) to immediately take over the prosecution of the case of “false petitioning” by the police against Citadel Oracle Concept Limited and its Managing Director, Benjamin Joseph.

The order was contained in a letter No. DPP/ADV/1009/14 dated November 15, 2021, signed by Abdulrahim Opotu Shuaibu on behalf of the DPP.

A copy of the letter obtained by MEDIATRACNET on Friday in Abuja was addressed to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) for the attention of the Commissioner of Police in charge of the Legal Department of the Police. A copy was sent to the Registrar, Court 5, of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Maitama, Abuja.

The letter titled: “RE: Charge No. FHC/HC/CR/216/2016 – IGP vs Benjamin Joseph” read: “I am directed to inform you that the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation in the exercise of the powers conferred on him by Section 174(1) b of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) has directed the taking over of the above-captioned charge No. FHC/HC/CR/216/2016 pending before Hon. Justice (Peter) Kekemeke of the FCT High Court, Maitama, Abuja.

“I am further directed to inform you that a counsel from the Office of the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation shall be in court on the 16th of November, 2021 to formally take over the case.”

Section 174 (1) of the Constitution empowers the AGF to institute and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court of law in Nigeria, other than a court-martial, in respect of any offence created by or under any Act of the National Assembly.

It also authorizes the AGF to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that may have been instituted by any other authority, or person, and to discontinue at any stage before judgment is delivered any such criminal proceedings instituted, or undertaken by him, or any other authority, or person.

Regardless, in exercising the powers under the section, either by him in person, or through officers of his department, the AGF is obliged to have regard to the public interest, the interest of justice, and the need to prevent abuse of legal process.

On November 16, 2021, when the court was expected to resume sitting in continuation of the trial in the case, a senior official from the office of the DPP was in court to give effect to the directive by the AGF. But the court did not sit, as the schedule coincided with the annual Judge’s conference week.

The letter conveying the directive by the AGF was, however, lodged with the Registrar of the Court pending the resumption of sitting at the next adjourned date.

Counsel to Benjamin Joseph, Bob James of Bob James & Co. told MEDIATRACNET the implication of the AGF’s directive is that having written to so inform the court, the police, by law, has been ousted from further prosecuting the case.

“As of today, the people in charge of the case are the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation. Now, the AGF will take a look at the case file and review the facts. If he finds anything that merits a continuation with the case, he will so do.

“But often when the AGF takes over a case, it is either the party being prosecuted is already facing a miscarriage of justice, or contending with a potential threat, or risk of a miscarriage of justice.

“Our expectation is that since it is obvious our client was unjustly prosecuted by the police for telling the truth about the fraud perpetrated against him and his company, we are confident the AGF will right the wrong and do justice.”

Persecution vs prosecution

Since 2016, the police prosecution of Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, an Ibadan-based ICT retail firm, and its managing director, Benjamin Joseph, appears to have degenerated into persecution, necessitating the intervention at various times by the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo and the AGF.

Joseph filed a petition to the Inspector General of Police alleging his company was defrauded. But he was later arraigned by the police and charged for falsehood, despite several investigations by both the police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) indicting the suspects.

In February this year, the EFCC, after finding seven of the suspects culpable of the crime, opted to arraign and charge only two of them.

Although Joseph’s petition was based on the forgery of his company’s document dated December 18, 2012, the EFCC charged the suspects based on a non-existent document dated December 14, 2012.

As a result of the deliberate contradictions and non-diligent prosecution by the EFCC, the suspects were discharged and acquitted by the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Jabi, Abuja, presided by Justice Danlami Senchi, while Joseph, who was not a party to the case, was fined N20 million.

Backstory

In October 2013, Joseph petitioned the then Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in charge of the Force Criminal Investigation Bureau (FCIB), Solomon Arase.

Joseph accused some senior officials of Zinox Technologies Limited and its subsidiary, Technology Distributions Limited (TD) of conspiring with their allies to fraudulently hijack and illegally execute, using his company’s name, an N170.3million contract awarded to his company by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) in 2012.

The businessman named the suspects to include the Chairman of Zinox Group, Leonard Stanley Ekeh, and wife, Chioma; Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and TD, Chris Eze Ozims, and a director of TD, Folashade Oyebode.

He said they connived with the chief executive of Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited and Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, Onny Igbokwe, along with one Princess O. Kama, and two officials of Access Bank PLC – Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu.

Oyebode and Ozims, he alleged, appointed themselves signatories of a fake account opened in his company’s name at Access Bank with forged documents, including a board resolution dated December 18, 2012, using a caricature of his signature.

To facilitate the fake account opening, Joseph said Onuoha and Ijeabu illegally gave out to the syndicate the original copies of his company’s documents with the bank.

Joseph said a review of the transaction documents also showed Chioma Ekeh issued the instructions to the accountant at TD, Charles Adigwe, for the disbursement of funds from the fictitious account at Access Bank to various benefiting parties in the fraud.

Prosecution of suspects stalled

Although the Special Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police in Lagos since 2014 concluded investigations into the allegations in the petition and found the suspects culpable of the crime, the police refused to release the original case file to the DPP for their prosecution.

Meanwhile, the then DPP, Muhammad Diri, sent several unsuccessful requests to Arase, demanding the release of the case file for the prosecution of the suspects. On July 3, 2014, Joseph sent a reminder to Arase.

Following Arase’s appointment as Inspector General of Police (IGP), Joseph, on May 8, 2015, sent yet another reminder highlighting his company’s frustrations in getting the police to transfer the case file to the DPP for the prosecution of the suspects.

But Arase advised him to allow the civil case instituted against the suspects to run its full course before their prosecution, ostensibly to prevent a miscarriage of justice.

Petitioner turns accused

Not satisfied, Joseph petitioned then acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, who directed the EFCC to wade in and investigate the matter.

In compliance with Osinbajo’s directive, the anti-graft agency invited and quizzed all the suspects. At the end, the report said the agency corroborated all the allegations against the suspects. Yet, the police remained adamant over their prosecution.

Rather, on June 16, a few days before Arase’s retirement, Joseph was charged by the police for allegedly misinforming the former IGP.

On July 2, he was formally arraigned before Justice Peter Kekemeke of Court 14, Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja, on a one-count charge of “false petitioning” in case No FHC/HC/CR/216/2016.

The police prosecution counsel, Simon Lough, said Joseph provided false information to the IGP through his petition of July 3, 2014, which accused the suspects of using a fictitious Board resolution of his company to open a fake account with Access Bank PLC used in committing fraud.

AGF takes over prosecution

Following his arraignment and charge by the police, Joseph again petitioned Osinbajo, who directed the AGF, Abubakar Malami, along with the then Solicitor General of the Federation, Taiwo Abidogun, to intervene.

The AGF, acting on Osinbajo’s directive, asked then DPP, Mohammad Umar, to take over the prosecution of the case by the police to avoid a miscarriage of justice.

On December 7, 2016, the DPP pursuant to the AGF’s directive detailed a senior counsel from the Federal Ministry of Justice, Aniekan Ekong, to appear in court and take over the case.

Indeed, Ekong took over the case and asked the police to hands off its prosecution. The police were further directed to transfer the case file to the DPP, as directed by the AGF.

But on February 28, 2017, at the resumed hearing in the case, the police prosecution counsel, Simon Lough, presented a letter purportedly signed by the same DPP Umar, upturning the AGF’s earlier directive, and reinstating the police to continue with the trial.

Lough said the AGF was misinformed about the status of the case, as DPP Umar carried out his directive unaware of a petition by Innocent Eremionkhale of Integrity Law Firm claiming its client, the police, had a case pending against Joseph.

Joseph tackles Anukam

On April 11, 2017, Joseph again wrote to Osinbajo and Malami to demand the investigation of the director, International and Comparative Law in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Stella Anukam, accusing her of abusing her office, by using her position to obstruct justice against the suspects in the fraud against his company.

Investigations revealed Anukam was not only the lead partner in Integrity Law Firm used by the police to petition the AGF to reverse his earlier directive for the take-over of Joseph’s prosecution, but also the sibling to Innocent Eremionkhale, the signatory to the petition, who doubles as the legal counsel to the fraud suspects.

In 2017, when the EFCC quizzed the suspects over their roles in the fraud, documents seen by MEDIATRACNET showed Anukam signed as surety to some of the suspects, including Chioma Ekeh, the director of TD and wife of the Chairman of Zinox Group, Stan Leo Ekeh.

Integrity Law Firm and Eremionkhale also featured as legal counsels to four of the fraud suspects – Chioma Ekeh, Chris Eze Ozims, Folashade Oyebode and Charles Adigwe, in their applications before the Federal High Court in Lagos presided by Justice Tijjani Garba Ringim, as they sought to shield themselves from police prosecution for the fraud.

Eremionkhale filed separate applications for the quartet asking the court to restrain the police from inviting them for interrogation and prosecution over their roles in the alleged conspiracy, forgery, and fraud leveled against them.

But the court on Monday, October 4, 2021, dismissed the applications for lack of merit on the ground that the court cannot be used to stop the police from performing its lawful duty of investigating, arresting and prosecuting suspects named in a criminal case.

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