Crime

Court permanently forfeits funds recovered in Osborne Towers to FG

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Gbemi Solaja, Lagos

A Federal High Court sitting in Lagos has ordered the sum of money recovered from Osborne Towers be forfeited to the Federal Government.

 Justice Muslim Hassan in his ruling in Lagos on Tuesday ordered that the sums of   $43,449,947, £27,800 and N23,218,000 be permanently forfeited to the Federal Government.

 The money was recovered from No. 16, Osborne Road,  Flat 7B Osborne Towers, in Ikoyi, Lagos.

 It will be recalled that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC on April 11 following intelligence information retrieved the funds stashed in iron cabinets and “Ghana-must-go” bags in the Ikoyi apartment.

 The anti-graft agency on April 13, 2017 had obtained an interim court order temporarily forfeiting the funds to the Federal Government.

 Justice Muslim Hassan, who granted the interim order, had given 14 days for anyone interested in the funds to appear before him to show cause why the money should not be permanently forfeited to the Federal Government.

 But on May 5, 2017 when the matter came up, no one came before the judge to claim the money.

 However, a private legal practitioner, Mr Olukoya Ogungbeje, appeared before the judge, with an application, urging the judge to suspend the final forfeiture proceedings pending when a three-man panel constituted by President Muhammadu Buhari in relation to the funds would submit its report.

 The panel, headed by the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, was to probe the claim and counter-claim of the Nigeria Intelligence Agency and Rivers State Government to the funds.

 But the EFCC had opposed Ogungbeje’s application and urged Justice Hassan to dismiss it and go ahead with the forfeiture proceedings.

 Ruling on Tuesday, Justice Hassan upheld the EFCC’s submission and dismissed Ogungbeje’s application for lacking in merit.

 The judge described the application as totally strange, noting that having not appealed against the interim forfeiture order, Ogungbeje had no right to seek a stay of proceedings in the case.

 The judge, who noted that Ogungbeje was not a party in the suit filed by the EFCC, described the lawyer as a meddlesome interloper and a busybody, adding that his application was strange to law.

 He advised the lawyer to explore the Freedom of Information Act if he wanted information from the Federal Government on the findings of the Osinbajo’s panel.

 Having dismissed Ogungbeje’s application, the judge subsequently made an order permanently forfeiting the funds to the Federal Government, noting that no one had appeared to show cause why the permanent forfeiture order should not be made.

 Justice Hassan held, “I am in complete agreement with the submission of the learned counsel for the applicant (EFCC) that the property sought to be attached are reasonably suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities and that by every standard this huge sum of money is not expected to be kept without going through a designated financial institution; more so, nobody has shown cause why the said sum should not be forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria. Having regard to the foregoing, I have no other option but to grant this application as prayed.

 “For the avoidance of any doubt, I hereby make the following orders: 1. A final order is made forfeiting the sums of   $43,449,947 found by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission at Flat 7B of No. 16 Osborne Road, Osborne Towers, Ikoyi, Lagos, which sum is reasonably suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities to the Federal Government of Nigeria.”

 The judge made the same order in respect of the £27,800 and N23,218,000.

 After the judgment, the EFCC lawyer, Idris Mohammed, urged Justice Hassan to award a cost of N5m against Ogungbeje for wasting the judicial time of the court with his application.

 But in a short ruling, the judge declined the application.

 The EFCC had, while arguing the application for final forfeiture order on May 5, named the wife of the NIA Director General, Mrs. Folashade Oke as the owner of Flat 7B, No. 13, Osborne Road, Osborne Towers, Ikoyi, Lagos, where the funds were recovered.

 The EFCC said it found out that Mrs. Oke made a cash payment of $1.658m for the purchase of the flat between August 25 and September 3, 2015.

 She was said to have purchased the property in the name of a company, Chobe Ventures Limited, to which she and her son, Master Ayodele Oke Junior, were directors.

 Payment for the purchase of the flat was said to have been made to one Fine and Country Limited.

 The EFCC stated that Mrs. Oke made the cash payment in tranches of $700,000, $650,000 and $353,700 to a Bureau de Change company, Sulah Petroleum and Gas Limited, which later converted the sums into N360,000,000 and subsequently paid it to Fine and Country Limited for the purchase of the property.

 The anti-graft had tendered the receipt issued by  Fine and Country Limited to Chobe Ventures Limited as an exhibit before the Federal High Court in Lagos, where it is seeking an order of final forfeiture of the recovered money to the Federal Government.

 ”The circumstances leading to the discovery of the huge sums stockpiled in Flat 7B, Osborne Towers, leaves no one in doubt that the act was pursuant to an unlawful activity.

 The very act of making cash payment of $1.6m without going through any financial institution by Mrs. Folashade Oke for the acquisition of Flat 7B, Osborne Towers, is a criminal act punishable by the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Amendment Act. I refer My Lord to sections 1(a), 16(d) and 16(2)(b) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Amendment Act,” a counsel for the EFCC, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, told the court on Friday.

 In an affidavit filed before the court, a Detective Inspector with the EFCC, Mohammed Chiroma, stated that “Chobe Ventures Limited is not into any business but was merely incorporated to retain proceeds of suspected unlawful activities of Mrs. Folashade Oke.”

 While urging Justice Hassan to order the permanent forfeiture of the funds to the Federal Government, the EFCC lawyer, Rotimi Oyedepo, had argued that the fact that Flat 7B, Osborne Towers was purchased in a criminal manner, made the N13bn recovered therein “extremely suspicious to be proceeds of unlawful acts.”

 The lawyer noted that despite the newspaper advertisement of the initial order of April 13, 2017 temporarily forfeiting the money to the Federal Government, no one showed up in court to show cause why the money should not be permanently forfeited to the Federal Government.

 Oyedepo also observed that Chobe Ventures Limited, in whose apartment the huge sums were recovered, did not come to court to challenge the forfeiture order, despite being served with the motion on notice at its registered address of No. 18, Ogunmodede Street, off Allen Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos.

 Oyedepo said the court papers were received at the stated address, which is also the house of the Okes, by one Bola, who signed for them on May 3, 2017.

 “The failure of Chobe Ventures Limited, in whose custody these properties we are seeking to forfeit were found, to show cause before My Lord today why the property (money) should not be forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria, Your Lordship should hold that Chobe Ventures Limited has admitted all the facts deposed to in our affidavit and order the final forfeiture of the property to the Federal Government.

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