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

Queen

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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Supreme Court Dismisses Suit Challenging Adeleke’s Candidacy

The Supreme Court has affirmed Ademola Adeleke as the authentic candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in the just concluded Osun State Governorship Election.

This has laid to rest the suit filed by Dotun Babayemi, a governorship aspirant of the party who sought the invalidation of Adeleke’s victory.

In a judgement delivered by Justice Amina Augie, the five-member panel held that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the suit after counsel for the appellant, Adebayo Adelodun, withdrew the earlier notice of appeal that was filed within time.

At the resumed hearing, Adelodun, who represented the appellant and Babayemi informed the court that he sought to withdraw the earlier notice of appeal to replace it with the fresh application he filed.

But the panel held that Section 285(11) of the constitution stipulated that an appeal on a pre-election matter must be filed within 14 days from the day of the decision, and that having filed the second appeal out of time, the apex court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the matter.

Justice Augie, therefore, dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

Babayemi had asked the court to invalidate the primary election that produced the governor-elect, citing non-compliance with a court order.

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400 Staff To Lose Jobs As BBC Goes Digital

The British Broadcasting Corporation BBC world service has on Thursday disclosed that about 400 of its staff will lose their jobs as part of a cost-cutting programme and move to digital platforms,

The BBC said its international services needed to make savings of £28.5 million ($31 million) as part of wider reductions of £500 million.

In July it detailed plans to merge BBC World News television and its domestic UK equivalent into a single channel to launch in April next year.

BBC World Service currently operates in 40 languages around the world with a weekly audience of some 364 million people.

But the corporation said audience habits were changing and more people were accessing news online, which along with a freeze on BBC funding and increased operating costs meant a move to “digital-first” made financial sense.

BBC World Service director Liliane Landor said there was a “compelling case” for expanding digital services, as audiences had more than doubled since 2018.

“The way audiences are accessing news and content is changing and the challenge of reaching and engaging people around the world with quality, trusted journalism is growing,” she added.

 

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Environment

Hurricane Ian: Cities flooded and power cut as storm crosses Florida

Hurricane Ian: Cities flooded and power cut as storm crosses Florida

Hurricane Ian made landfall at around 15:10 local time (19:10 GMT) on Wednesday, smashing into the coast with wind speeds of up to 241km/h (150mph).

Dramatic scenes saw a hospital roof blown off, cars submerged and trees ripped out of the ground.

The category four hurricane was later downgraded to a tropical storm.

However, Floridians were warned that the most dangerous 24 hours lay ahead and the mayor of Tampa urged people to shelter in place through the night into Thursday morning.

“We are going to get the majority of the rain and the higher winds starting about 20:00, and they are going to last throughout the night,” Jane Castor said during a Wednesday evening briefing.

In a message posted on Facebook, the Weather Prediction Center told residents in the Central Florida Peninsula to expect “widespread life-threatening, catastrophic flash and urban flooding” continuing into Friday morning, with potentially up to 76cm (30ins) of rain falling locally.

Residents were ordered to leave their homes, but many have decided to remain and seek shelter indoors.

Mark Pritchett, who lives in the city of Venice, some 95km (60 miles) south of Tampa, described the “terrifying” moment he stepped outside his home as the hurricane made its way across the Gulf of Mexico.

“Rain shooting like needles. My street is a river,” he said in a text message to the Associated Press news agency.

In Lee County – the south-west region where Ian made landfall – police were prevented from responding to reports of looting at a petrol station because of the storm damage.

As a result, a curfew has been declared “until further notice”.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said that the Fort Myers community had “been – to some extent – decimated”. According to news agency AFP, some neighbourhoods in the city of 80,000 had been left resembling lakes.

State Governor Ron DeSantis described Ian as the “biggest flood event” south-west Florida had ever seen, and announced that 7,000 National Guard troops are ready to lead rescue operations in flood zones.

President Joe Biden will receive a briefing on Thursday from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ian is now continuing to move north through Florida. Jacksonville International Airport, based in north-east Florida, cancelled all flights scheduled for Thursday.

The storm is forecast to emerge into the Atlantic by Thursday morning.

It is expected to reach Georgia and South Carolina on Friday. Virginia has also joined Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida by declaring a state of emergency.

Cuba’s western coast was hit by Hurricane Ian on Tuesday. Power has now been restored in some areas after the island was plunged into a total blackout. Two people are understood to have been killed in Cuba and more than 20 Cuban migrants are believed to be missing at sea.

Predicted path of Hurricane Ian. Updated 27 September

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