Lagos-based Information Technology Firm, Zinox Technologies Limited, has sued PREMIUM TIMES and some of its officials over the newspaper’s reporting of an alleged N170.3 million contract fraud involving the company and its management.
In a notice by the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja, dated May 15, Zinox accused the newspaper’s Chief Executive Officer, Dapo Olorunyomi; Editor-in-Chief, Musikilu Mojeed, and Business Editor, Bassey Udo, of libeling it and its chairman, Stanley Leonard Ekeh.
Its counsel, Chukwuma Ekomaru, claimed Zinox Technologies never received any money through a controversial account in Access Bank PLC as part of the proceeds from the N170.3 million contract fraud.
Mr. Ekomaru further sought to distance Zinox Technologies and its chairman, Stanley Leonard Ekeh, from the case involving alleged illegal takeover and execution of a contract awarded by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), to an Ibadan-based ICT firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, in 2012.
He is demanding N2 billion in damages and N10 billion in cost of litigation.
He also asked for an order of perpetual injunction restraining further publication by PREMIUM TIMES, an apology and court directive for the removal of the said publications from the newspaper’s website.
Indicting court ruling
But the suit appears to have ignored the ruling of May 2, 2017 by Justice O. O. Femi-Adeniyi of the High Court of Lagos, establishing a “reasonable cause of action” against Zinox and other accused entities in the alleged fraud.
The judgment was sequel to a preliminary objection by Chris Ozims, Folashade Oyebode, Zinox Telecommunications and Technology Distributions Limited (TD) pursuant to suit No. LD/4335/2014 filed by Citadel Oracle and its Managing Director, Joseph Benjamin, accusing them of involvement in the alleged scam.
Mr. Ozims is the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser of Zinox Group, which has Zinox Technologies Limited, Zinox Telecommunications Limited and TD as affiliates, with Leonard Stanley Ekeh as Chairman, and Chioma Ekeh as member, Board of Directors. Ms. Oyebode is an executive director in TD.
Joined in the case were Onny Igbokwe, Princess Kama, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited, Pirovics Engineering Services Limited and Access Bank Plc.
Mr. Igbokwe is the chief executive, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited and Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, while Princess Kama is Mr. Igbokwe’s ally accused of facilitating the alleged fraud. Two Access Bank Plc staff, Obilo Onuoha and Deborah Ijeabu, were also named.
Citadel Oracle’s case
On April 7, 2014, Citadel Oracle filed the case against Messrs. Igbokwe and Ozims, along with seven others, accusing them of taking over and executing, without its knowledge, contracts awarded to it by the FIRS.
The company specifically accused Ms. Oyebode and Mr. Ozims of unlawfully presenting themselves as authorised signatories of a fake account, No. 0059202675, they allegedly opened in Access Bank using a fake board resolution document purportedly issued by Citadel.
Also, Access Bank was accused of negligence, not only for allowing the duo to open and operate the controversial account, but also colluding with all the accused to commit the fraud.
Accused file objection
On May 23, 2014, Mr. Ozims filed a motion before the court to object to the application by Citadel Oracle.
Mr. Ozims, however, did not deal with the substance of the case. He busied himself challenging the court’s jurisdiction, saying the company did not invite him, Ms. Oyebode, TD and Zinox for a settlement meeting after alleging fraud.
He also asked the court to dismiss the allegation against him on the ground that ‘Mr. Ozim’ (not Ozims) and ‘Technology Distributors Limited’ (not Technology Distributions Limited), as reflected in the application, were non-existent or non-juristic entities.
Also, Mr. Ozims and Ms. Oyebode asked the court to quash the application against them, claiming they were employees of TD, and therefore not liable to be prosecuted in their personal capacities, as whatever action they took was at the instance of their principal.
Court rejects objections
But Justice Femi-Adeniyi ruled that a court cannot be robbed of its jurisdiction to entertain a matter because of mere “typographical error or slip or mistake” in a name.
The judge argued that the omission of ‘s’ from Ozims, and misspelling of Technology Distributions Limited as ‘Technology Distributors Limited’ were mere misnomers that could be corrected with a simple amendment or correction.
“There was no mistake as to whom the names referred to, more so when the 4th defendant (Mr. Ozims) had filed a defence even before being served with the claimant’s processes,” the judge ruled.
Citing a Supreme Court ruling on a similar case in 1992, the judge said, “The court acknowledged that blunders may occur, but such blunders cannot deny the party committing it the opportunity of having his case to be heard on the merit.”
Besides, not being a human person, the court ruled, was irrelevant, as “the company, of necessity, acts through human beings who are its agents or servants, and the company, like every master, is liable for the fraud committed by its servant or agent in the course of its service.”
“I find and hold that the 3rd and 4th defendants (Ms. Oyebode and Mr. Ozims respectively) cannot be discharged from liability for the alleged fraud by hiding behind the cloak of their principals’ corporate personality,” the judge ruled.
Their application was consequently dismissed with N25, 000 cost against them and TD.
The court imposed a N50, 000 cost on Access bank.
In its final ruling, the court said all the defendants had a case to answer, as Citadel Oracle had proved a reasonable cause of action against them, including Zinox Telecommunications, which participated in the transaction that led to the company (Citadel) being charged for VAT by the FIRS, when it did not, in fact, execute the contract.
“If the claimant (Citadel) is able to prove these allegations against the 7th defendant (Zinox Telecommunications Limited) as recorded in its statement of claim, then it will likely be entitled to the reliefs being sought against the 7th defendant. I find and hold that the claimant has disclosed a reasonable cause of action against the 7th defendant,” the court ruled.
PREMIUM TIMES reacts
PREMIUM TIMES’CEO, Dapo Olorunyomi, described the suit as an attempt by Zinox Technologies Limited to manufacture “alternative facts” to what is widely known, apparently to deceive unsuspecting members of the public.
Mr. Olorunyomi said claims by Zinox Technologies Limited that neither it, nor its Chairman, Stanley Leonard Ekeh, was involved in the transaction was an attempt to be clever by half.
“Whether it is Zinox Technologies Limited, its telecommunications arm, or TD, its affiliate, available documents show Eze Ozims is the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser of Zinox Group and TD. He even claimed in his statement to the police in 2013 that the decision to open the controversial account in Access Bank was approved by the Board of Zinox Group, chaired by Stanley Leonard Ekeh.
“There are also documented evidence that Mr. Ekeh’s wife, Chioma, personally authorized the disbursement and transfer of the proceeds from the transaction to various beneficiaries’ accounts in GTBank and Zenith Bank,” Mr. Olorunyomi said.
Mr. Olorunyomi said his company has since referred the case to Legal Adviser, Jiti Ogunye, who he said will “viforously defend PREMIUM TIMES’ reporting and integrity in court”.
PREMIUM TIMES has since confirmed that contrary to claims by Zinox Technologies Limited that it was not involved in the alleged fraud, the initial transfer of N115.268 million from the controversial account at Access Bank to TD’s account at Guaranty Trust Bank was 48 hours later transferred to Zinox Technologies account No. 0053068225 at the same bank.
The transfers followed an official advice on January 25, 2013 by TD’s accountant, Charles Adigwe, which was approved by its managing director, Chioma Ekeh, who is Mr. Ekeh’s wife.
Mrs. Ekeh is a member of the board of Zinox Group, which also includes Zinox Technologies Limited.