There was a momentary hush inside the courtroom after a representative of Pluto Property and Investment Company Limited, the first of the four companies involved in a $26 million money laundering case linked to former First Lady, Patience Jonathan, abruptly pleaded guilty before the judge.
The representatives of the other three companies – Sea Gate Property Development and Investment Company Limited; Trans Ocean Property and Investment Company Limited; and Avalon Global Property Development Company Limited – followed suit and pleaded guilty before Justice Babivision of the Federal High Court.
Waripamo Dudafa, who served as Special Adviser on Domestic Affairs to former President Goodluck Jonathan; Amajuoyi Briggs, a former presidential aide; and Adedamola Bolodeoku, a former Skye Bank official, who were arraigned alongside the companies, however, pleaded not guilty.
The judge adjourned till September 27th for trial.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission arraigned the suspects on a 15-count amended charge of money laundering, stealing, and forgery totalling $15.5 million before Mr. Kuewumi.
According to the EFCC, the offences were committed between November 2013 and May 2015.
In Count 1, the suspects were accused of conspiring to launder $15.5 million “on or about the 13th of November 2013.”
Counts 2 – 9 accused them of stealing of various sums ranging from $250,000 to $1.2 million.
Counts 10 – 15 said Messrs Dudafa, Briggs, Bolodeoku, and one Sompre Omiebi (who is still at large) forged documents to open accounts in Skye Bank and Wema Bank in the name of the listed companies.
During their investigations, the EFCC had frozen the accounts.
But last week, Mrs. Jonathan filed a fundamental rights enforcement suit before the court claiming ownership of the money found in the companies’ accounts, asking that the ‘no-debit’ order placed on them be lifted.
In an affidavit deposed to by one Sammie Somiari, a lawyer, Mrs. Jonathan said she asked Mr. Dudafa to assist her to open the bank accounts which the EFCC had frozen.
The former First Lady said the monies were meant for her medical treatment.
Before the pleas were read, the first three defendants’ lawyers argued that the four companies’ representatives – who did not have legal counsels – ought to provide a letter from their respective companies authorizing them to appear before the judge.
“Anybody can be called upon from the street to come and represent a company,” said Tochukwu Onyiuke, counsel to the second defendant, Mr. Briggs.
Gboyega Oyewole, counsel to Mr. Dudafa, said the defendants were in a joint trial.
“It cannot be severed,” he said.
“Whatever plea pleaded by the defendants will tell on the companies. Worst case scenario, my Lord will discountenance them and enter a not guilty plea for them.”
But Rotimi Oyedepo, counsel to the EFCC, argued that the representatives were listed as directors in the companies’ Corporate Affairs Commission registration records.
“If they (defence counsels) are objecting to their plea being taken, it is extremely immature to bring it up at this stage, it is after their plea had been taken,” said Mr. Oyedepo.
“If they want us to show that the persons appearing the court are listed in the CAC as directors, we have the proof.”
After the plea was read, the judge granted Messrs Briggs and Bolodeoku bail in the sum of N250 million each, with two sureties.
The judge refused to allow Mr. Dudafa to continue on a bail granted him in another trial before a different judge, remanding him in prison and insisting that his lawyer must file a bail application before his court.
Jiti Ogunye, a Lagos based lawyer, told PREMIUM TIMES that the implication of the companies’ representatives pleading guilty means the money found in the bank accounts would be forfeited to the Nigerian government.
“The companies’ representatives cannot be sent to prison because they are not charged as individuals,” Mr. Ogunye said.
“The company that pleaded guilty, of course, cannot be made to serve custodial punishment. But is it very instructive that they pleaded guilty realizing that it doesn’t make any sense of them to deny such an obvious guilt on their part.”
As the case continues, it is not clear how much Mrs. Jonathan can do to prove the money truly belongs and be returned to her and not forfeited to the government.
Editor’s note: The headline of this story was corrected to reflect the true amount in dispute as contained in the charge sheet.