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Queen’s lawyers acted for politician now accused by US prosecutors

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Queen’s lawyers acted for politician now accused by US prosecutors

After almost 70 years on the throne, the Queen has been served by 14 prime ministers and been advised by nine private secretaries. But in that time one thing has remained unchanged: her choice of solicitors.

Throughout her reign, the Queen’s has been advised by Farrer & Co, an elite London firm with a long history of representing members of the royal family and aristocracy.

The firm that has remained by the Queen’s side since her coronation is now under a spotlight, thanks to the Pandora papers.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing. The documents do not show rules were broken. They do, however, show that one of its clients has been Abubakar Bagudu.

Bagudu is a Nigerian politician who the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has accused of playing an “instrumental role” in a notorious corruption scheme through which billions of dollars were looted from the west African nation.

So how did a company like Farrer & Co end up in the company of Bagudu?

What are the Pandora papers?

The Pandora papers are the largest trove of leaked data exposing tax haven secrecy in history. They provide a rare window into the hidden world of offshore finance, casting light on the financial secrets of some of the world’s richest people. The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which shared access with the Guardian, BBC and other media outlets around the world. In total, the trove consists of 11.9m files leaked from a total of 14 offshore service providers, totalling 2.94 terabytes of information. That makes it larger in volume than both the Panama papers (2016) and Paradise papers (2017), two previous offshore leaks.

The hunt for Abacha’s money

This saga has its origins in the late 1990s with the death of Sani Abacha, the country’s notorious dictator.

After Abacha’s death in 1998, the country’s new government accused the former military ruler of overseeing a vast conspiracy to steal between $3bn and $5bn (£2.2bn to £3.7bn) from Nigerian state coffers. A hunt for the money has been going on since – the decades-long search has traced the allegedly looted billions through a chain of front companies to accounts in Paris and London.

Bagudu was an associate of Abacha and as early as 1999 he accepted in a Nigerian court that he had received funds from the dictator. The Nigerian government alleged he was directly involved in Abacha’s corruption, but in 2003 the two sides reached a court-approved settlement and Bagudu agreed to return about $300m of his fortune with no admission of wrongdoing.

Enter Farrer & Co.

According to the Pandora papers, the law firm was acting for Bagudu as early as February 2010, helping him and his brother Ibrahim transfer the ownership of €98m (£113m) from a British Virgin Islands (BVI) trust to a complex structure in Singapore and the Cook Islands, a secretive jurisdiction that offers high levels of asset protection.

Documents show Farrer & Co engaged the services of Asiaciti, a family-owned trust company in Singapore, to administer the new structure, which was called the Blue Group. Once it was created, Farrer & Co continued to be involved in managing the trusts and the Bagudu family’s relationship with Asiaciti.

Though Bagudu had settled with the Nigerian government seven years earlier, the claims about Abacha’s looted money had not gone away. They still haven’t.

But both Farrer & Co and Asiaciti appear to have taken a reputational risk in taking on Bagudu as a client. Ultimately it was one they were prepared to take. Farrer & Co explained to the Guardian it had conducted “extensive due diligence” on Bagudu, which had met the firm’s “legal and regulatory obligations”.

Certainly, checks were made. The documents show that in April 2010, Farrer & Co received a response from another firm representing Bagudu, which it had contacted to ask about their mutual client’s source of offshore wealth. The other firm acknowledged Bagudu had faced criminal investigations relating to the embezzlement scheme and had been arrested and detained in the US for six months.

But it assured Farrer & Co that Bagudu had reached a settlement with the Nigerian government allowing him to retain the funds held in the BVI trust.

In August 2010, Farrer & Co submitted a suspicious activity report (SAR) to the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) to obtain the law enforcement body’s consent to transfer the assets held by Bagudu’s trust in the BVI to the new structure.

A spokesperson for the firm said a “detailed precautionary report of the transaction including the assets and their whereabouts” was made to UK law enforcement, which granted consent in early September. Two days later, the €98m of cash and securities were transferred into the Blue Group, documents suggest.

Some of this money soon began flowing directly to Bagudu and his brother, who helped manage his financial affairs.

Asiaciti appears to have made its own assessment of Bagudu, too. An internal memo written by the head of Asiaciti acknowledged he had “a somewhat controversial background”, but still accepted him as a client.

Describing Asiaciti’s rationale, he wrote he was “further comforted” by the fact “a prestigious London law firm, who act for the royal family, have accepted the explanations provided and have been prepared to act for the client”.

By May 2013, Asiaciti had decided it needed to conduct “enhanced due diligence” on Bagudu and his request for funds from the Blue Group. Farrer & Co intervened. Documents show the firm pointing out that Bagudu’s brother was “not entirely happy about the level of scrutiny”, and suggested to Asiaciti that this was unnecessary.

The London firm reminded Asiaciti that Bagudu had years earlier specified he wanted the trusts’ assets to be managed in a way that ensured funds would be made “readily available” for his wife and children who, he said, should be “generously supported in the style to which they are accustomed”.

US prosecutors intervene

Four years later, the judgments made by Farrer & Co and Asiaciti about the “somewhat controversial” Bagudu were put in an uncomfortable light.

In 2014, the DoJ homed in on Bagudu’s assets, alleging he had helped Abacha to “launder the proceeds of the conspiracy” through an elaborate network of fake companies. Prosecutors alleged Bagudu then siphoned some of the stolen money into bank accounts he controlled.

In a public statement, the DoJ said: “The complaint alleges that General Abacha, his son Mohammed Sani Abacha, their associate Abubakar Atiku Bagudu and others embezzled, misappropriated and extorted billions of dollars from the government of Nigeria and others, then laundered their criminal proceeds through US financial institutions and the purchase of bonds backed by the United States.”

In March 2014, US prosecutors brought civil forfeiture proceedings against more than $500m of assets they said were derived from an “international conspiracy” to launder the proceeds of the Abacha-era embezzlement scheme.

Within months, the UK authorities assisted US prosecutors in obtaining a court order freezing Bagudu’s assets in the UK: €107m held in investment portfolios with exclusive wealth managers in Mayfair. In early 2015, Soca’s successor, the National Crime Agency (NCA), was in court again to ensure the freeze remained in place.

Bagudu, 59, has denied any wrongdoing.

Farrer & Co told the Guardian any criticism of the firm was unwarranted, pointing out it had received consent from UK authorities before transferring control of the assets to the new trusts. However, that raises questions for Soca about why its own due diligence and anti-corruption checks had not picked up the same concerns as the Americans.

Both Farrer & Co and a lawyer for Bagudu also denied there was any attempt by their client to hide the assets in the new trust structure, saying they had disclosed details of how the assets were ultimately controlled to relevant authorities. They did not explain why Bagudu formed the trusts, which are not illegal, but said he had been allowed to retain the funds as part of the 2003 agreement with the Nigerian government.

A spokesperson for Farrer & Co said the UK authorities knew the whereabouts of the assets. They added: “Criticism based on subsequent events and allegations is misplaced and unwarranted.”

The legal fight goes on

According to the Pandora papers, Farrer & Co continued to act for Bagudu in subsequent years, a relationship that generated significant revenues for Asiaciti. Between 2017 and 2018, it received almost $80,000 (£60,000) in fees from services conducted for Bagudu’s trusts, internal records suggest.

Today, the Bagudu family assets are at the heart of an ongoing legal battle involving the governments of Nigeria, the US and UK. Court papers suggest a team of specialist anti-corruption prosecutors in Washington DC have spent the past year locked in discussions with Bagudu and his representatives.

Bagudu’s lawyer said there had been no findings of wrongdoing against her client in either criminal or civil cases. She said Bagudu’s 2003 settlement stated there was no admission of wrongdoing. She declined to comment on the US settlement discussions.

In an update filed in late September, the US prosecutors said the UK order freezing the assets remained in place while negotiations were “ongoing”.

Asiaciti did not comment on its work for Bagudu, but in a statement said: “We are committed to the highest business standards, including ensuring that our operations fully comply with all laws and regulations.”

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EFCC arraigns forex broker for alleged N2b investment scam in Uyo

The Enugu Zonal Directorate of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC on Friday, July 19, 2024 arraigned one Rufus John Isip, a self-acclaimed forex broker before Justice C. S. Onah of the Federal High Court sitting in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.

Isip was arraigned alongside his company, ITM-IT Resources Limited on an eight-count charge bordering on fraudulent conversion, money laundering and obtaining by false pretence to the tune of N2, 022, 081, 172 (Two Billion, Twenty-two Million, Eighty-one Thousand, One Hundred and Seventy-two Naira).

Count one of the charge reads: “That you, Rufus John Isip while being the Director of ITM-IT Resources Limited and ITM-IT Resources Limited sometime in December 2020 and May 2021 in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, within the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, with intent to defraud, obtained the sum of (431, 331, 172. 00) Four Hundred and Thirty-one Million, Three Hundred and Thirty-one Thousand, One Hundred and Seventy-two kobo from one Michael Okon, the Director of N-Rex Resources Limited under the false pretence that it is an investment in Vandera, an online investment platform, on his behalf, which pretence you knew to be false and thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 1 (1) (a) of the Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Related Offences Act, 2006 and punishable under Section 1 (3) of the same Act”.

Count eight of the charge reads: “That you, Rufus John Isip while being the Director of ITM-IT Resources Limited and ITM-IT Resources Limited sometime between December 2020 and May 2021 in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, within the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, converted the total sum of (N730, 870, 000. 00) Seven Hundred and Thirty Million, Eight Hundred and Seventy Thousand Naira to crypto currency (Bitcoin) and transferred same into your Binance Wallet knowing that the said money formed part of your unlawful act and you thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 15 (2) (d) of the Money Laundering (Prevention and Prohibition) Act, 2011 and punishable under Section 15 (3) (4) of the same Act”.

He pleaded not guilty when the charges were read to him.

In view of his plea, Khamis Mahmud, counsel to the EFCC prayed the court to remand him in EFCC custody on the grounds that “we are still investigating him on other cases”.

The defence counsel, Samson Ewuje however, did not pose any objection.
Justice Onah adjourned the matter to October 14, 2024 for trial and the defendant was remanded at the Uyo Zonal Directorate of the EFCC.

Isip was arrested based on a petition from one Michael George, alleging that he lured him to invest in his online trading platform called Vandora.io. According to the petitioner, the defendant told him that it was more profitable to trade on his platform with a minimum trading capital of $100, 000. 00 (One Hundred Thousand Dollars) and that he would earn more profit if he involved more investors.

The petitioner thereafter invested, reached out to other investors and companies who also invested in the defendant’s phony online trading platform and after 60 days (as agreed) for the investors to start earning their profits, the defendant disappeared into thin air.

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EFCC presents more witness against Fayose in alleged N6.9bn fraud trial

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, on Friday, July 19, 2024, presented its 14th prosecution witness, PW14, Sahibu Salisu, a former Director of Administration and Finance, Office of the National Security Adviser, NSA, in the trial of alleged N6.9bn fraud involving a former governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose, and his company, Spotless Investment Limited, before Justice Chukujekwu Aneke of the Federal High Court sitting in Ikoyi, Lagos.

The Lagos Zonal Command of the EFCC had, on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, re-arraigned Fayose and Spotless Investment Limited on an 11-count charge bordering on money laundering and stealing to the tune of N6.9bn ( Six Billion Nine Hundred Naira).

The defendants had first been arraigned on October 22, 2018 before Justice Mojisola Olatoregun.

At the resumed sitting on Friday, Salisu told the court how he paid the sum of N200m and another N2billion to a firm, Sylvan MacNamara, for security purposes on the instruction of a former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd).

Led in evidence by the prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, the PW14 , who disclosed that he served as the Director of Administration and Finance between 2011 and 2015, explained the process of payment, saying, “ Once the NSA gave approval for payment, we processed it accordingly. The payments we made were mainly for operational activities.”

When asked to state the roles of the NSA Office , he said: “The roles of the NSA Office are purely about the security of the entire country. And any money expended on security was expected to be retired.”

When shown a document tagged Exhibit S, which was the payment voucher raised for the fund, he said: “It is the payment mandate raised by me as the Director of Administration and Finance on the NSA’s instruction. The first figure was N200 million in favour of Sylvan McNamara and it was paid to the company’s Diamond Bank account. It was the NSA who gave me the account details.”

He said though the NSA did not tell him the purpose for which it was meant, the memo raised and the mandate payment showed it was for physical security infrastructure. “All the payments made from the Office of NSA were supposed to be for security activities and security structures,” he said.

When asked who signed the payment mandate, he said: “I will sign my own part as signatory B. “Thereafter, I would take it to the NSA for final signature, which was approval. Then, I would take the mandate to the Central Bank of Nigeria for payment.”

Giving further testimony on the exhibit S, he said the former NSA and him appended their signatures on it. According to him, the payment was made and there should be retirement, after the purpose for which money was paid for had been completed. He, however, stated that “ Up till I left the office, I could not say whether or not the money was retired.”

When asked about the exhibit S1, which was payment to Sylvan McNamara to the tune of N2 billion dated June 13, 2014, he said: “We paid the amount of N2 billion to Sylvan McNamara on the instruction of the NSA. I was not a signatory to this account, so I am not in a position to know whether it was retired after payment. The NSA and former Permanent Secretary, Mr. Ibrahim Mahe, would be able to know whether it was retired or not”.

Salisu, under cross-examination by the counsel to the first defendant, Ola Olanipekun, SAN, testified that all payments made by the NSA office were made through the bank and they had to raise the mandate before it was done.

When asked if the former NSA told him that the N200m and N2bn were for security purposes, he said: “No. The NSA never informed me that the money was for security purposes and the NSA never complained about this payment.”

During cross-examination by the counsel to the second defendant, Olalekan Ojo, SAN, Salisu testified that he was familiar with financial regulations, adding that “In relation to retirement, once money is given to a recipient, you are supposed to bring the receipt of what you have been asked to supply with a memo attached to it. That is the retirement of such a fund-the financial regulations only apply to public servants.”
According to him, the schedules of his duties did not extend to security matters.

When asked if he knew what made the former NSA to first approve the payment of N200million and subsequently N2 billion for Sylvan McNamara, he said: “As I said earlier, all payments in the office of the NSA are for security purposes”. Also, when asked if he made a statement to the EFCC when he was invited during investigation, he said, “Yes”.

Thereafter, Ojo tendered the statement of the witness and was admitted by the court as exhibit A19. The witness also confirmed to the court that no one ever queried the instructions of the NSA.

Counsel to the first defendant, Ola Olanipekun, SAN, made an application before the court, seeking the permission of the court to allow his client travel abroad on health grounds. There was no objection from the prosecution counsel.

In his ruling, Justice Aneke granted Olanipekun’s request to enable his client travel abroad for medical check.

The case was adjourned to October 18, 2024 for continuation of trial.

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NSUK 300-Level student killed in foiled robbery attempt in Akwanga

A 300-level student of Nasarawa State University, Keffi (NSUK), Mustapha Osama, was reportedly killed in a foiled robbery attempt in Akwanga Local Government Area of Nasarawa State.

The incident occurred on Friday night around 8 PM along the Gudi-Akwanga road, according to sources.

Osama, who has been buried in Doma on Saturday morning according to Islamic rites, was said to have been hit by a bullet fired by the gunmen.

A family source confirmed that the deceased was driving when he was struck by the bullet.

The robbery attempt was thwarted by operatives of the Nigeria Police who responded immediately to a distress call, according to the state’s Police Public Relations Officer, DSP Ramhan Nansel.

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