On February 22, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, published the names of 12 lawyers it said had been shortlisted for appointment as Court of Appeal judges after an intensive two-day screening exercise that involved 187 lawyers.
In a statement announcing the shortlist, the NBA explained that the exercise was in response to the call by the President of the Court of Appeal for it to nominate “suitably qualified candidates” to be considered for appointment as judges into the second highest court in the country.
A PREMIUM TIMES investigation has revealed that one of the finalists, Rita Chris-Garuba, formerly Rita Kuku, in 2000, was indicted for a series of professional misconduct, including putting clients’ funds to her own use, and a £250,000.00 mortgage fraud in the United Kingdom where she worked as a solicitor.
After an indictment, the Law Society of England and Wales described Mrs. Chris-Garuba as lacking the “integrity”, probity and trustworthiness” expected of a legal practitioner, and subsequently struck her name off the Roll of Solicitors.
The Law Society is the professional body of solicitors in England and Wales. It regulates conducts of solicitors as well as protects the public from dishonest practitioners.
Mrs. Chris-Garuba was admitted to the Nigerian bar in 1980. She moved to the UK in 1995.
After practising as a registered foreign lawyer in the country for a while, she qualified as a solicitor in August 1998. But barely six months after she was admitted as a solicitor, she ran into trouble after she, alongside her partner, Axel Nares, was charged with fraud, and “conducts unbefitting of a solicitor” before a three-person tribunal of the Law Society chaired by J.C Chesterton.
A record of the trial obtained by PREMIUM TIMES from the Law Society showed that the charges against Mrs. Chris-Garuba and Mr. Nares were filed by Peter Cadman of the Office of the Supervision of Solicitors on January 27, 1999. Mr. Cadman further presented a supplementary list of allegations against the duo on February 20, 2000.
Both accused were charged with utilising clients’ funds for their own use; drawing money from client’s account above what was permitted by Rule 7 of the Solicitors Accounts Rule 1991, and the failure to keep account properly written up for the purpose of Rule 11.
They were also charged with the misappropriation of clients’ funds. Other charges against them were the use of client’s fund for the purpose of other clients, and unreasonable delay in the conduct of professional business.
Mrs. Chris-Garuba was specifically charged with misleading a client as well as obtaining a mortgage by deception.
The trial opened on June 20, 2000, but hearing proper started on June 23, 2000 at 10 a.m. at the Court Room, Gate House 1, Farringdon Street, London.
The charges against Mrs. Chris-Garuba and Mr. Nares were considered so grave that the hearing continued for over 10 hours and did not end until 8.20 pm.
Mrs. Chris-Garuba did not raise any objection to the long hearing, she even turned down an offer by the tribunal to take a break, saying she had no need for one.
The investigation into the accounts of her law firm, Temple Chambers, by the Law Society’s Monitoring and Investigative Unit began in July 1997, at the time when Mrs. Chris-Garuba was a registered foreign lawyer in the UK handling investment matters.
The tribunal was told that Mrs. Chris-Garuba obtained a mortgage by deception.
In March 1996, she purchased a property at luxury High View Gardens, Cyprus with the help of a £150,000.00 mortgage obtained from Preferred Mortgages using her full name at the time, Rita Ifeyinwa Kuku.
However, she fell short of her mortgage repayment and accumulated arrears.
Not wanting to lose the property due to accumulated arrears, she arranged for the sale of the property to herself, using her maiden name, Chukwuma, with a mortgage advance from another company, Abbey National Building Society.
However, the date of birth she used when applying for the first mortgage with her married name was different from the one she used when applying with her maiden name.
When applying for the new mortgage, she used an identity card that identified her as a marketing consultant instead of a lawyer. She also used different addresses in the applications.
She admitted to the tribunal that she was both the vendor and purchaser of the property and that she had kept accounts under her married name and maiden name. She said she had put in £100,000.00 of her own into the property.
Mrs. Chris-Garuba explained that just before the transactions, she had been divorced from her husband and had suffered “considerable trauma” and was in a sorry emotional state”. She told the tribunal that she and her children did not receive any maintenance from her former husband and that she was scared he would be able to claim a substantive portion of her property as a result of the divorce.
She further told the tribunal that the new mortgage cut her monthly repayment from £2,071.00 to £1,000.00. She said after rebuying the property, she continued to repay the new mortgage faithfully and did not fall into arrears.
On why she used different dates of birth when applying for the mortgages, she explained that it was a genuine error or the misreading of her handwriting and that she had not intended to use an incorrect date of birth.
On why she used a different address to apply for the new mortgage, she claimed that she only became aware that her broker used a different address upon receiving the statement of offer from Abbey National Building Society. She admitted that the use of a different address instead of her residence would create the impression that she had hatched an elaborate charade to deceive, which was not what she intended.
Her explanation fell flat on its face as the tribunal described the mortgage deal as being “extraordinary”.
“The tribunal commented in particular upon the extraordinary behaviour of Mrs. Kuku in arranging a transaction in which she apparently transferred property from herself to herself using her married name on one hand and her maiden name on the other hand and where she went to the length of instructing separate firms of solicitors to act in connection with the sale and with the purchase. The tribunal had no doubt at all that that had been a dishonest course of dealing,” the Law Society stated.
WITHDRAWALS FROM CLIENTS ACCOUNTS
As at July 8, 1997, an investigative accountant discovered a minimum shortage of £1,841.68 in a client’s account handled by Mrs. Chris-Garuba. She told the tribunal that she had partly paid back the money on July 30, 1997 by a lodgement of £840.00 from her own money. She said the remaining money will be covered by charges for cost due to the firm.
The tribunal was also told that Mrs. Chris-Garuba made the following withdrawals totalling £5,717.69 from a client’s account in contravention of the Solicitors Accounts Rule: an unallocated £4,550.00 was transferred from client to office bank account; £950 unallocated payment for personal use, £217.96 in bank interest incorrectly debited to client’s account.
Further, the investigative accountant discovered that between March 24 and June 3 1997, six transfers varying between £200.00 and £1,550.00 and totalling £4,500.00 were made from client account to office account. The discovery also showed that none of the withdrawal was allocated to any individual account in the client ledger.
During the hearing, Mrs. Chris-Garuba’s only explanation for why the unallocated transfers were made from client’s accounts was that they might have been made in error, a record of the trial noted.
In one instance, the tribunal was told that Mrs. Chris-Garuba acted for a client simply identified as Mr. H, who purchased a property in Manchester worth £67,450.00. The transaction was closed on June 3, 1998. On June 9, 1998 the client’s account was charged £1,050 for stamp duty. When queried about the transaction, Mrs. Chris-Garuba admitted that the payment did not represent the statutory one per cent charged for stamp duty. She claimed the payment was not related to the matter.
“Mrs. Kuku (Mrs. Chris-Garuba) was at the time of the inspection unable to attribute the payment of £1,050.00 to any other client matter and agreed that the payment gave rise to a shortage on client’s bank account of £1,050.00,” the Law Society noted.
Mrs. Chris-Garuba admitted to the tribunal that she did not keep proper account as stipulated by Solicitors Accounts Rule 11.
She also admitted that she drew money from clients’ accounts in excess of what she was permitted. But she denied that she used the money withdrawn for her own purposes.
But the tribunal ruled that she had done as exactly as she was accused.
“It was clear from the Monitoring and Investigation Officer’s report that the books of the account of the firm had not been kept properly written up and that Rules 7 and 8 of the Solicitors Accounts Rules had not been complied with,” the tribunal stated.
“The Tribunal found that Mrs. Kuku had utilised clients funds for her own purposes as that was the inevitable consequence of money being transferred from client account to her own account.”
The tribunal then ruled that Mrs. Chris-Garuba and her partner, acted in manner unbecoming of solicitors, and in ways contrary to what the public has come to expect from legal practitioners and thus ruled that they be struck off the roll of solicitors.
“The Tribunal considered it right in respect of each of the respondents that he and she should be struck off the Roll of solicitors. Neither of them had behaved with the integrity, probity and trustworthiness which members of the public were entitled to expect, and the profession demanded, of a member of a solicitors’ profession.”
When reached for comment, Mrs. Chris-Garuba answered her phone but ended the call midway into our enquiry. She did not answer subsequent calls made to her neither did she reply a text message sent to her number asking for comment.
When contacted, the President of the NBA, Abubakar Mahmoud, said he was abroad and requested that enquiry be sent via his email. When he finally responded, Mr. Mahmoud said, “We are aware of the issues affecting the candidate referred to in your mail and the NBA will be issuing a formal statement on the matter soon.”
A HISTORY OF SHADY DEALING
Mrs. Chris-Garuba, who is married to a former military governor of Bauchi State, Chris Garuba, alongside her husband, was also mentioned in the notorious Halliburton bribery scandal.
A leaked file about the scandal obtained by French Newspaper Le Monde and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed a strong link between Mrs. Chris-Garuba, her husband, and a mysterious individual identified as Abu Shuiabu and Jeffery Tesler, a UK lawyer who used a network of secretive banks and offshore tax havens to funnel $182 million in bribes to top Nigerian officials in exchange for a $6 billion contract to build Nigeria’s liquefied natural gas company.
The names of Mr. Shuaibu and the Garubas were listed along with Mr. Tesler’s in an account named Bridlington Enterprises Limited, a shell company based in Gibraltar.
The mysterious 65-year-old Shuaibu, who gave his address as P.O Box 53322, Ikoyi WAN-Lagos, ran Bridlington’s accounts, making several cash withdrawals from HSBC in Switzerland.
On November 11, 2005 – he visited the bank to request a transfer of $600,000 to an unknown individual.
Despite the indictments, however, Mrs. Chris-Garuba, and the 11 other nominees, await confirmation by the President of the Court of Appeal for their new positions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited to contain the reaction of the NBA President. The reaction was sent by email after the story was published, thus leading to the edit.