The Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) has condemned the slap-on-the-wrist judgment handed Michael Igbinedion, a younger brother to former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion, by a federal judge.
In a shocking ruling Thursday, Justice J. Liman of the Federal High Court in Benin, Edo State, fined N3 million for stealing N25 billion of public money.
The Executive Chairman of CACOL, Debo Adeniran, said the judgement was another proof that Federal Government was protecting corrupt people.
“The Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke is not interested in prosecuting anybody. Several people have been indicted, nobody has been made to face the wrath of the law; and for those who were brought before the law, the cases were shoddily prosecuted to the extent that many of them didn’t get deterrent punishment. As a matter of fact, it is a long drawn story of protecting corrupt people,” he said.
“It is unfortunate this is happening in Nigeria despite the many reforms this administration claimed it has brought to our judicial system. This is an indication that the reforms are just charade. The judgment ridicules our judiciary and judicial system.”
The paltry fine against Michael, was a repeat of history, as a court had delivered a similar dubious judgement in favour of his elder brother seven years ago.
According to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which brought the charges against Michael, the money was stolen from the Edo State treasury when his brother was governor of Edo State.
The court’s ruling is reminiscent of a 2008 case brought against the former governor, where he was accused of plundering the Edo State treasury during his eight years tenure as governor.
Following a controversial plea bargain reached with the then Farida Waziri-led EFCC, the former governor was sentenced to six months in jail with the option of a N3.5 million fine by a Federal High Court in Enugu.
He was also directed to return N500 million and three of the houses he acquired with stolen public funds to the Federal Government.
Based on the plea bargain all but one of the 191 charges of corruption and money laundering against him was dropped.
Now, seven years later, a similar pattern has been followed in the case of his brother, Michael.
Michael and his co- accused, Charles Eboigbodin, were convicted by Justice J. Liman of the Federal High Court, Benin, on Wednesday.
The duo alongside their companies: Gava Corporation Limited; Romrig Nigeria Limited; PML Securities Company Limited and PML Nigeria Limited, were prosecuted on an 81-count charge of money laundering, misappropriation of funds and abuse of office brought against them by the EFCC.
The convicts pleaded not guilty when they were arraigned, setting the stage for a full trial. In the course of trial, the prosecution called several witnesses to prove its case.
The duo was also convicted on different charges.
While Mr. Eboigbodin and PML Nigeria Limited were convicted on counts 50 to 59 for colluding to conceal the illicit origin of funds as stipulated under Section 14 (1)(b) of the Money Laundering (prohibition) Act, Mr. Igbinedion was convicted on counts 79, 80 and 81 for receiving cash in excess of the stipulated threshold.
The offence covered by these counts under Section 15 B of the Money Laundering Act carries both “a fine of not less than N250, 000 or more than N1million or a prison term of not less than two years or both fine and imprisonment.”
When the court resumed for sentencing, counsel to Mr. Eboigbodin and PML Nigeria Limited, Richard Ahonaruogho, urged the court to exercise its discretion and award a fine on PML Nigeria Limited and his client as first time offenders.
Mr. Igbinedion’s counsel, Abubakar Shamsudeen, prayed the court to tamper justice with mercy in sentencing his client.
“The second convict confided in me and he is remorseful and repentant, and Your Lordship has unfettered discretion to exercise option of a fine,” Mr. Shamsudeen said. “Section 15(2) of the Money Laundering Act has given my lord the ability to exercise the sentence with an option of a fine not below N250, 000 or N500, 000 and not more than N1, 000,000. My lord, he is a first time offender with no previous record of criminality.”
However, prosecuting counsel, Tayo Olukotun, who held brief for Rotimi Jacobs told the court to impose the stiffest punishment allowed by law on the convicts.
Mr. Olukotun contended that given the huge amount involved in the case, the reputation of the court was at stake if it grants an option of fine to the accused persons.
He urged the court not to be swayed by the plea of leniency from the defence lawyers, pointing out that “the convicts have been on bail and had been travelling in and out of the country and even after their conviction yesterday, they still went home, so the court has been lenient enough.”
Mr. Olukotun said, “The position of the law is clear on the punishment for the various counts for which Patrick Eboigbodin, PML Nigeria Limited and Michael Igbinedion had been convicted.
“Eboigbodin must serve the sentence as his offence has no provision for an option of fine, while the counts on which Igbinedion was convicted has an option of fine, imprisonment or both fine and imprisonment. We urge your Lordship to administer both the option of fine and imprisonment on Igbinedion.”
After listening to counsel, Mr. Liman proceeded to pronounce his sentence on the convicts.
He sentenced Mr. Eboigbodin to two years imprisonment but gave Mr. Igbinedion an option of N1 million fine on each of the three counts for which he was convicted and in default, two years imprisonment.
Mr. Liman also wound up PML Nigeria Limited and all its assets forfeited to the Federal Government, he ordered the company to pay N1 million on each of the ten counts for which it was convicted.
In addition, the judge discharged and acquitted three of the companies involved in the case: Gava Corporation Limited, Romrig Nigeria Limited and PML Securities Company Limited.
The convicts who were docked on an 81- count charge had pleaded not guilty upon arraigning setting the stage for a full trail. In the course of trial, the prosecution called several witnesses to prove its case.
During the trial, a prosecution witness Ajoyo Sowale, an accounts officer with the Guaranty Trust Bank, identified various account statements and account opening documents of the convicts and confirmed to the court that several lodgements were made into the accounts.
He added that he printed the account statements and got them certified by the appropriate authority.
Another witness Eriyo Amadiayagbon, a personal assistant to Mr. Igbinedion told the court how he was instructed on several occasions to make lodgements into the accused GTB account and those of Romrig Nigeria Limited and Gava Corporation.
According to Mr. Amadiayagbon, he usually received cash from the accountant at the Government House and paid into the account of the second accused person.
“And after paying the government entourage, the remaining cash was usually given to the ADC to the Governor,” Mr. Amadiayagbon had said.
He clearly identified his name on the printed account statement of Mr. Igbinedion, which is part of the exhibits before the court.
Abdullahi Hamza, an EFCC operative and a witness in the trial, gave detailed account of how state funds were diverted by the convicts for personal purposes, such as buying of shares, and transfer of funds into the account of Ekpenyong and Sons, a company owned by the first accused person, Mr. Eboigbodin.
CACOL urged the incoming Buhari government to reopen all these cases and bring all corrupt people and their allies in the judiciary to judgment.
“What a ridiculous judgment! What ratio is N3m to N25bn? What qualifies Lucky for an option of fine which is not applicable to Eboigbodin? Do we have different sets of laws for different classes of people?”
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