Thursday, April 24, 2014

EFCC moves to disqualify Justice Talba from pension fraud case

Published:

EFCC has a new leadership

International Centre for Investigative Reporting

The Nigerian anti-corruption agency no longer has confidence in the judge’s impartiality.

 The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, is like to make an application to Justice Abubakar Talba, the judge who sentenced John Yusufu to two years in prison with an option of N250,000 fine last week, to disqualify himself from the pension funds embezzlement case.

A decision has been reached by the commission and its lawyers to bring an application before Justice Talba to disqualify himself from trying other persons who, along with Yusufu, allegedly embezzled more than N23 billion police pension office funds.

Mr. Yusufu is the only one that pleaded guilty in the case but Mr. Talba is still hearing the suit against Abubakar Kigo, a former permanent secretary; and four others. The others are Sani Habila Zira; Esai Dangabar, former director in the police pension office; Ahmed Inuwa Wada; and Veronica Uloma Onyegbula.

They all pleaded not guilty to a 20-count charge of criminal conversion of N23.3 billion belonging to the Police Pension Office.

However, competent sources in the commission said yesterday that the prosecution no longer has confidence in the trial judge following the ruling he gave on Mr. Yusufu’s guilty plea and will apply for him to discontinue the case.

The application is to be made “anytime from today (Thursday)”, our source said.

Although the commission’s legal team has more fundamental fears, it is likely to argue as reason for its application the fact that the media hoopla raised by the ruling in the Mr. Yusufu, case has tainted public perception about the judge’s possible fairness.

The prosecution team will argue that in the court of public opinion, Mr. Talba has already been judged and that, for the sake of his integrity, it would be unfair on him to continue to sit on the case.

Our reporter gathered that apart from the application that would be made before the court, the commission’s lawyers are also considering formally writing to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, asking him to transfer the case to another judge.

As at the time of going to press, it could not be ascertained which option the lawyers would adopt – bring an application before Justice Talba to disqualify himself or ask the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to transfer the case from her or both.

Our source hinted, however, that considering the seriousness of the matter and how fundamental the prosecution counsels fears are in the case, they might be more inclined to write to the chief judge giving very convincing reasons why Mr. Talba should not be allowed to handle the case of the remaining alleged pension thieves.

The source explained the fears of the EFCC and its lawyers “are well founded and well grounded”.

First, he said, the prosecution can no longer trust Justice Talba because he went outside the agreement reached by the two parties in the Mr. Yusufu case to give him an option of fine.

The agreement between the prosecution and defense counsels which was communicated to Mr. Talba was that he would be made to face lesser charges but would be given custodian sentence. By the agreement, he was never to have received an option of fine.

Thus, the prosecution team considers the judge’s “backroom” ruling as “a stab in the back.”

However, a more fundamental fear is the possible impact of the subsisting case against Messrs. Kigo, Dangabar and others still before Justice Talba. Following the debacle with the Yusufu case, the prosecution does not want to take any more chances.

And this is understandable.

It was gathered that Mr. Yusufu was a ‘small fry’ in the pension office compared to Messrs. Kigo and Dangabar and the money he confessed to have stolen – over N3 billion – will be pittance to what his seniors took.

The remaining accused persons, investigators told our reporters, possibly still have so much wealth starched away undiscovered with which they are fighting for freedom.

Even to the officials of the EFCC who investigated the monumental pilfering that went on at the Police Pension Office, the accused persons allegedly offered bribes worth billions in cash and asset.

All accused persons who are on bail are still believed to be hiding some of the money they stole, although over N30 billion is said to have been recovered from them in asset and cash.

Of the accused persons, Mr. Dangabar is the one most suspected to still be keeping a tangible part of his loot. Investigators said that the looting of the funds meant for retired police officers was particularly brazen under him. Although we could not get the exact figure so far recovered from him in cash and asset, it is said to be several billions.

Just one of Mr. Dangabar’s bank accounts which has now been frozen and seized by the EFCC had a turnover of over N7 billion; and he had several high worth accounts.

The pension thieves opened so many bank accounts into which they lodged stolen funds that more are being discovered by the day, it was gathered. In fact, it is believed that in the account opening frenzy that went on, proper records were not kept and the accused persons might have forgotten about some of the accounts.

What is scaring prosecutors in the case more is that some of the unrepentant accused persons have been arrogantly boasting that they will walk home from the case free.

One source close to the investigation and prosecution said: “You will not believe that these criminals are even boasting that the money that we refused to collect, they will give to others. And that they have enough money to buy any judge, even the entire judiciary if necessary.”

“That is why we need a totally disinterested and unbiased judge in this case,” the source said.

Nigerians were shocked in February last year when EFCC arrested Mr. Kigo, then Permanent Secretary in the Niger Delta Ministry and Mr. Dangabar, a retired director in the Police Pension Office, among others for the embezzlement of billions meant for paying the pension of retired police officers.

The shock was not only because those arrested were very senior civil servants but also due to the amounts believed to have been stolen and the brazen and reckless manner the thievery was perpetrated.

In a scheme that is believed to have gone on for years, the civil servants just wrote cheques with which they cashed hundreds of millions of naira weekly which they shared.

In all, over N50 billion is believed to have been stolen from the coffers of the Police Pension Office.

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