By Tunde Opeseitan – Snr Correspondent, Lagos
It is no longer news that Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Adeyemi Ikuforiji, has been cleared of money laundering charges to the tune of about N600 million, levelled against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
It is also not news that the EFCC has appealed the verdict delivered on September 26 by Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court in Lagos. The legal travails of the Speaker began in December 2011, when the EFCC instituted a criminal charge against him and his aide, Oyebode Atoyebi.
The charge against Ikuforiji and Atoyebi was first filed before Justice John Tsoho, while an amended charge was filed before the court on January 30, 2012. As the case was going on before Justice Tsoho, the judge suddenly excused himself from the case and attributed his action to personal reason. The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, then re-assigned the case to Justice Okechukwu Okeke. The case was however re-assigned to Justice Buba following the retirement of Justice Okeke from the Bench of the court.
It was before Justice Buba that the EFCC opened the case against Ikuforiji and Atoyebi.
During trial, the EFCC presented two witnesses, while the third was suddenly withdrawn from the case. The witnesses are Adebayo Adeniyi, an official of the agency and Adewale Olatunji, former Permanent Secretary and Clerk of the House.
The prosecuting counsel, Godwin Obla (SAN), had taken everybody, including the defence lawyers by surprise, when he announced during one of the proceedings that he was ready to close the case against the accused.
The case on that fateful day was initially adjourned for the third prosecution witness to testify, but Obla informed the court of EFCC’s readiness to close its case.
Obla had said: “My Lord, having reviewed our case so far against the accused persons, we are of the opinion to rest our case and leave the court to do the rest”.
But, lead defence counsel, Wole Olanipekun (SAN), jokingly chided Obla for failing to inform him of the development.
He said: “On a lighter note My Lord, I had to read the file all night and I came to court fully prepared to take the witness.”
Justice Buba had then adjourned for the hearing of the no-case submission of the defence.
Adeniyi, had during his testimony, detailed how the defendants allegedly laundered millions of naira. For instance, the witness told the court how the defendants allegedly collected N13.5 million for honorarium, N4.5 million for renovation of the Speaker’s residence, and N1.5 million for the Speaker’s Guest House every month for six consecutive months.
Adeniyi further inundated the court with series of other transactions, which he said, the Speaker and his aide received money from the Lagos State House of Assembly without passing through a financial institution.
On his part, Olatunji told the court that conferences attended by members of the Assembly were based on approval. Olatunji, who has since retired from the civil service, had recalled that he was appointed a Clerk of the Assembly in 2007.
He noted that as Clerk of the House, he was in charge of administrative activities, and to some extent, its finance, adding that he also employed the second accused as aide to Ikuforiji.
The witness told the court that as soon as funds were received from the state government, the state Commissioner for Finance embarks on a budget analysis, and issues guidelines for its implementation.
He said the Commissioner for Economic Planning also moderates the budget, adding that the law stipulates that one-twelfth of the total overhead running cost, be issued to the assembly on a monthly basis.
The witness told the court that funds allocated to the Assembly were expended in accordance with the budget, adding that staff payments were made in cash, while those for corporate entities were paid in cheques.
During cross examination by Defence Counsel, Olanipekun, the witness told the court that the Office of the Speaker of the Assembly was a corporate entity, and that all payments approved for the House, were based on requisitions.
The witness also affirmed that the records and documentation of the Assembly in relation to its transactions were tidy and devoid of any illegality, since the funds were approved for official assignments.
On the issue of the petition against Ikuforiji by one Comrade Eleya Olootu, the witness told the court that he was only informed of the petition by the EFCC, but never saw a copy during his visit to the commission. The witness also admitted before the court that all seminars, conferences, or retreats, attended by members, were based on approvals.
He said members were given estacodes from the bank for such events to facilitate their assignments, adding that evidence of attendance of such meetings were also exhibited by the members on return.
Olatunji said that he was not aware of any conspiracy on the part of the accused to divert funds for illegality, noting that the services of auditors were employed from the Office of the Auditor General, to audit the Assembly’s account.
He said he was not aware if any query was raised with respect to the account, adding that the Assembly also had its own accounting laws, promulgated in 2001.
Under cross-examination by the second defence counsel, Tunde Akinrimisi, the witness told the court that the composition of the Assembly was 40 members, including the Speaker. When asked about the limit of funds, which could be generated by the House, the witness declined answers on the ground that he was not competent to provide answers meant for the Accountant General.
At another proceeding, the EFCC admitted that the commission never investigated the initiator of the petition that led to the arrest and prosecution of Ikuforiji and Oyebode.
EFCC’s first witness, Adeniyi, admitted that the said petitioner, Olootu of Anti-Corruption Vanguard, was never invited to substantiate the petition.
While being cross-examined by Ikuforiji’s lawyer, Olanipekun, Adeniyi, in a proceeding that lasted more than four hours, also informed the court that the petitioner did not have a particular address in the petition.
The said petitioner had alleged in the petition that the Speaker had been convicted twice while in the United State of America; falsified his date of birth and laundered a whooping N7 billion to buy properties in America and fund his automobile business.
But Adebayo informed the court that the monies allegedly collected by the Speaker, for which he was standing trial, were received and signed for by members of the Assembly who used the money for official purposes, such as attending one legislative seminars.
He also stated that other members of the Assembly were not invited for investigation, because the petition was written against the Speaker, and that he was investigated in his official capacity.
The witness also agreed with the Speaker’s counsel, Olanipekun, that the money allegedly collected by the Speaker’s wife, Mayowa Ikuforuji, was received and signed for by some female members of the Assembly to attend a conference in Australia.
At the end, Ikuforiji opened his no-case submission, with Olanipekun telling the court that it was evident that the case against his client was a witch hunt, because there was nothing in the charge to prove the money laundering allegation.
Olanipekun said the EFCC investigation was shoddy, as the agency failed to establish that the funds of the Lagos State House of Assembly were diverted into private accounts or for personal use.
Arguing further, Olanipekun said Sections 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Lagos State House of Assembly Self Accounting Law also provided how official funds of the House were to be expended.
“All the ledgers tendered by the prosecution are covered by the definition Section of the Money Laundering Act, because they were retrieved from the Lagos State House of Assembly. The office of the Speaker is not a private office but a public office created by Section 92 of the Constitution.
“What has been sold to the public is that the Speaker has benefited fraudulently whereas it was not the case. The funds were duly budgeted for and signed into law by the Lagos State Governor, but the EFCC closed its eyes to even the petition that brought about the case and was bent on nailing the Speaker at all cost,” Olanipekun argued.
Responding to the no-case submission, Obla said the case of the prosecution was purely based on the threshold of cash that anybody or institution could deal with.
He urged the court to discountenance the submissions of the defence counsel and order the accused persons to open their defence.
He added that there were confessional statements from Ikuforiji and Atoyebi, where both admitted collecting cash 57 times and same was documented in the cash book of the House.
After reviewing the arguments of both defence and prosecution, Justice Buba held that the EFCC failed to establish prima facie case of fraud against Ikuforiji, and as such, the speaker deserved to be discharged and acquitted.
The judge described the case of the prosecution as a case of trial and error or at best mere speculation, and that speculation, no matter how strong, cannot replace fact.
The judge ruled that the case against Ikuforiji was the very first in the history of Nigeria where a Speaker would be charged to court for performing his lawful and legal duties based on a petition written by a faceless petitioner who was not called to substantiate the allegations in the petition.
Ruling on the no-case submission, Justice Buba held that from the evidence before the court, it was evident that the case could best be described as speculative and a witch-hunt.
The judge added that the EFCC failed to prove a case of money laundering against Ikuforiji, as the ingredient of the crime was not substantiated.
While referring to the admission by EFCC witness that the commission never investigated whether the funds were used for what they were meant, Justice Buba ruled that the EFCC misinterpreted the Money Laundering Act.
The judge defined money laundering as any attempt to manage or conceal the proceeds of crime, stressing that in the instant case, the EFCC never established that the funds were proceeds of crime.
Before the Speaker was charged to the court, there were serious intrigues and political manoeuvring in Lagos State, as Ikuforiji was said to be nursing governorship ambition.
In fact, many of his admirers had publicly alleged that the charge was orchestrated by the Speaker’s enemies within his political party, and as such, it was nothing but an attempt to discredit him.
The Speaker himself, while reacting to Justice Buba’s verdict, said he had been vindicated and that the charges were a mere distraction.
But the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), in what seems to be a confirmation of the allegation, pointedly accuse the state governor, Babatunde Fashola as the architect of the criminal charge filed against Ikuforiji.
CACOL’s position is believed to be the position of Ikuforiji’s admirers, who felt that the charge was the Speaker’s payback for supporting former Lagos State Governor and leader of All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu when he had heavy disagreement with Fashola.
While clarifying its position, Executive Director of CACOL, Debo Adeniran, in a statement, recalled that the group sent a petition to the Lagos State House of Assembly in 2010 that it should probe itself and the Executive Arm for several allegations leveled against it by a group known as ‘True Face of Lagos’.
It said in a rare demonstration of courage, the House attempted to investigate the petition before it was stopped by a Lagos State High Court, only for Lagosians to wake up to find the hunter becoming the hunted the next day.
“This does not mean that we have concluded that Mr. Ikuforiji could not have had questions to answer,” CACOL said.
“But that it came shortly after the court stopped his parliament from delving into the veracity of the allegations against the government of Lagos State, left sour taste in our mouth, and on close examination of the charges levelled against the Speaker, we discovered that what he was accused of, were more of administrative lapses than corruption.
“We congratulate the Speaker for not running away from the battle and that he seized the opportunity of the charges against him to clear himself. It is our conviction that his case was fraught with a lot of politicking which might have been the fall out of his readiness to investigate the barrage of allegations against some officials of his parliament in particular, and the Lagos State Government at large.
“We still believe that the Federal High Court that discharged him must have left no stone unturned to prove us right. We want all other public officers, who rather than answer to their charges in court look for means of circumventing the course of justice, to pick a cue from this,” he stressed.