N170m Contract Fraud: EFCC begins trial of suspects

EFCC operatives
EFCC operatives

More than five years since an Ibadan-based computer retail firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, began the search for restitution over alleged N170.3 million contract fraud against it, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Wednesday arraigned two suspects over the scam.

Onny Igbokwe and Princess Kama are members of a syndicate, according to EFCC court documents, that conspired with some top officials of Zinox Group to hijack and illegally execute the contract awarded by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) to the IT firm in 2012.

Mr Igbokwe is the chief executive of a Port Harcourt-based IT company, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited, as well as Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, while Ms. Kama, his ally, allegedly facilitated the fraud.

In October 2013, the managing director of Citadel Oracle, Benjamin Joseph, petitioned the police accusing Messrs Igbokwe and Kama of conniving with the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, Zinox Group and Technology Distributions Limited, TD, Chris Ozims, to commit the fraud.

Mr Joseph also accused a director of TD, Folashade Oyebode, and two staff of Access Bank Plc, Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu, of involvement in the crime.

Between September 2017 and May 2017, all the suspects, along with top officials of Zinox Group, including its Chairman, Stanley Ekeh and wife, Chioma, were quizzed by the anti-graft agency in Abuja allegedly for various roles in the scam.

It was not clear why only Messrs Igbokwe and Kama were arraigned on Wednesday.

Those familiar with the case told PREMIUM TIMES it was even more curious that the suspects identified by Mr Joseph in his petition to the EFCC were being listed among the seven witnesses in the case.

Messre Igbokwe and Kama were arraigned before Justice D. Senchi of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja on a four-count charge of committing the alleged offence.

According to the charge sheet, the two accused persons in 2012 conspired to forge the signatures on a fictitious company Board resolution of Citadel Oracle Concepts Limited used in opening an account domiciled with Access Bank PlC, Lagos.

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The EFCC said using the forged documents to open the account without the consent of the bona fide owners of the company was in contravention of sections of the penal code. Both, however, pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Following a request by their lawyers, the court granted them bail for N1 million each, with two sureties in like sum.

Part of the conditions for the bail was for the sureties to be residents in Abuja and verified by the EFCC.

The sureties were to sign an undertaking that the defendants will attend the trial to the end. The case was adjourned till December 4 for trial.

When contacted on Wednesday, Mr Joseph said he felt vindicated that his company was gradually moving towards the unraveling of the truth in the case.

“I feel vindicated. Gradually the truth is coming out. No matter how long darkness covers the night, the morning will surely come. I don’t want to say more than that for now,” he said

Long, tortuous road to arraignment

In October 2013, Mr Joseph said he petitioned the police to accuse the suspects of swindling his company of N170.3 million.

In April 2012, Mr Joseph said Citadel Oracle tendered for the supply of 668 computers to Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).

However, months after being shortlisted as the preferred bidder, he said Ms Kama, appointed to represent the company throughout the bid period, introduced him to Mr Igbokwe, who she claimed had close relations with some FIRS insiders who could influence the contract process.

During the meeting held in Lagos, Mr Joseph said, Mr. Igbokwe spoke of his close relationship with the Zinox boss, Mr. Ekeh, whom he said had powerful associates within the FIRS who could help.

He said Mr. Igbokwe offered him N15 million and asked him to hands off the contract, or pay N85 million to him if he still wanted to go ahead to handle the contract.

Mr. Benjamin said he rejected both offers, opted out of the deal and immediately terminated business relations with Ms. Kama.

But, over a year later, by August 2013, he said he visited the Ibadan office of FIRS to file his company’s tax returns for the year.

Shockingly, officials there accused Citadel Oracle of under-declaring its earnings by about N8.1 million, being withholding tax and value added tax (VAT) in respect of a N170 million FIRS contract.

He said when Citadel Oracle launched an investigation, it was realised the suspects had impersonated the firm by cloning its official headed paper and signatures to issue an acceptance letter for the FIRS contract.

Again, to facilitate payment of the contract sum, they also approached officials of the Awolowo Road, Ikoyi branch of Access Bank who released to them the original copies of documents used by Citadel Oracle to open its corporate account.

Documents reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES showed the fictitious account, No. 0059202675, at Access Bank, was opened on Monday, October 1, 2012, a public holiday.

Curiously, Mr Joseph said it was discovered that a Board resolution purportedly issued by Citadel Oracle management had conferred the power of attorney on Chris Ozims, with Messrs Oyebode and Igbokwe listed as “directors” and authorised signatories to the account.

The transfers, withdrawals

Documents showed shortly after the fictitious account was opened, the FIRS wired its first payment of N53.763 million into it from its Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) account.

Another payment of N62.531 million followed three days later. The amount was withdrawn from the account barely 24 hours later. Same day, another N37.842 million was lodged in the account.

A close analysis of the documents used in the transfers showed Charles Adigwe, an accountant at TD, had on January 25, 2013, advised Mrs Ekeh, the company’s managing director, to give two approvals.

One was for N115.268 million to be transferred from the fictitious Access Bank account to the company’s account at Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), while the other was for another N43.685 million to be transferred from Ad’mas’ account at Access Bank to TD’s account at GTB.

Mrs Ekeh also approved another N38.057 million to be transferred to Ad’mas Digital Technology’s account at Zenith Bank.

Similar request by Mr Igbokwe for the transfer of N38.057 million to his account, No. 1010699686 at Zenith Bank, was also approved by Mrs Ekeh on January 31, the document showed.

On February 4, 2013, the N115.268 million earlier approved by Mrs Ekeh was transferred from the fictitious Access Bank account to TD’s at GTB, apart from another N38.057 million to Ad’mas’ account at Zenith Bank.

By February 28, 2013, the fictitious account was depleted to only N2,137.33 balance.

Elusive quest for justice

Despite several petitions by Mr Joseph to the police, Access Bank and the regulatory authority, the CBN, nothing was forthcoming.

Curiously, on June 16, 2016, three days before the then Inspector General of Police (IGP), Solomon Arase’s exit from office, Mr. Joseph was charged to court by the police, accused of providing false information in his petition against the accused.

The former IGP said Mr Joseph’s July 3, 2014 petition alleging fictitious signatures on the Board Resolution of Citadel Oracle company used in opening the fake account in Access Bank was false.

On July 2, 2016, Mr Joseph was arraigned before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja on a one-count charge of “false petitioning” IGP Arase with intention of misleading him over a case of identity theft, impersonation and criminal conversion of contracts against the accused.

All those he accused in the petition of being behind the fraud were used by the police as witnesses against Mr Joseph.

Following another petition by Mr Joseph to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, the EFCC was directed to take over investigations into the matter.

Although the EFCC had since July 2017 concluded its investigations and submitted the report of its findings to the legal department for prosecution of the suspects, action lingered following protracted disagreements on the number of persons to charge to court.

While Mr Joseph insisted all the persons identified in his petitions to the police and EFCC were culpable and should face trial, the EFCC, based on an advice by its legal department, which Mr Joseph described as strange, said only Messrs Igbokwe and Kama would be arraigned.

Regardless, earlier on May 2, 2017, a Lagos State High Court, Igbosere, had ruled that all the suspects, along with top officials of Zinox Group named in respect of the alleged fraud had a case to answer and should face trial.

The ruling followed an application filed by top officials of Zinox Technologies Limited, its subsidiary, Technology Distributions Limited, and their allies, including Access Bank PLC, in alleged N170.3 million fraud against them.

The application had asked the court to dismiss the allegations against them for lack of evidence followed and PREMIUM TIMES committed for contempt and defamation of character over a report published on the matter on September 15, 2016.

But, Justice Femi Adeniyi dismissed all preliminary objections by Zinox Group and Access Bank, with a N100,000 and N50,000 costs respectively.

Mr Adeniyi said objections by the defendants to the case of “impersonation, forgery and contract scam” against them did not only lack merit, but also incompetent, and did not deserve any serious consideration by the court.

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