Trial of Ibori Associates; tension as London case closes

Christine Ibie-iboriEvidence in the trial if Ibori associates – Udoamaka Okoronkwo, Christine Ibori and Bimpe Pogoson, his private secretary, – at the Southwark Crown Court ended on Friday 7 May, 2010 as the London matter enters into week 12. Wass, the prosecuting attorney has giving her closing speech this week, as have all the teams. The presiding judge has finished his summing up this weekend of May 14, 2010. correspondent reported that as the parties filed out of the court yesterday, there was palpable tension in the air as everyone now waits for the jury to consider the evidence and reach their verdict next week, probably Tuesday.

The opening of the prosecution case referred to “rags to riches”. Because of the Nigerian acquittal the prosecution are not permitted to make reference to corruption or theft.

In the words of Sasha Wass, QC, for the prosecution, she noted that in 1999, Ibori was having trouble paying his mortgage, a situation that changed radically once he got into office.  She asked the jury to ask themselves such questions as:  Where did the money come from?  Was the money legitimate?

The question posed to the jury was: how come that the Ibori that was finding it difficult to keep up with his mortgage payments in 1991 could suddenly be transferring millions of dollars into his UK account in 2002-2003?

But the rags to riches argument being the basis of the prosecution case has been completely attacked by the defence team. Surprisingly, what became apparent during the trial was that James Ibori was an extremely wealthy man prior to his entering into Nigerian politics.

Evidence, which was not disclosed to the defence teams but was along available to the investigators and came to light during trial included an entry of $475,000 in Ibori’s travellers cheques in 1993; a $1.6 million payment to James Ibori in 1997; over $1,000,000 in the US Citibank account; significant and substantial revenues from his private company MER engineering limited which funded the purchase of JI’s interests in the challenger jet, revenues from business and other consultancy services.

The prosecution found it difficult to contest that these were not legitimate income pre-1999. The defence insists these incomes also funded the James Ibori election campaign in 1999 and it was discovered an earlier campaign in 1998. These were evidenced as being James Ibori’s personal wealth.

Evidence was also tendered of Ibori’s Asset Declaration Form with the Code of Conduct Bureau.

The declaration forms talk of assets belonging to or in the name from the person completing the form and not to assets owned by Trustees. The prosecution insists that the Asset Declaration Form filed by Ibori failed to disclose his substantial wealth.

But the defence sought to establish that James Ibori did not incorrectly complete his declaration of assets form. They also sought to differentiate between assets owned by Ibori as an individual and assets owned by companies or trusts.

The Form is specific to actual assets owned by the individual and makes no reference to assets owned by companies or trusts.

According to the defence, all transfers from JI’s business interests were bank to bank and once a proper tracing exercise had been undertaken the source of these funds can quite easily be identified and “it is clear that none of these emanated from Delta state”.

The figures in issue are also far smaller from the numbers being bandied around. The court has heard that the maximum amount involved in this case does not exceed £5m.

The case is really about rags to riches. In 1991, James Ibori’s UK home was in the process of being repossessed. He had not kept up payments on the mortgage. He however did manage to discharge this later. The implication of this is that he could not afford to pay his mortgage and this leads to an inference that he had no money. This is the root of the case. Because he is not prepared to explain what happened between 1991 and 1999, the UK prosecution want a jury to draw a conclusion that he had no money during this period.

In accordance with standard criminal law in the United Kingdom, it is upon the prosecution to establish its case. And because it cannot there is a quantum leap to 1999. Because although he failed to list the assets on his declaration form at the time of becoming the Governor the inference is that he had no assets.

The prosecution completely ignores the issues surrounding Trustees and the effect of their appointment whereby the assets actually then belong to the trustees. This is basic trust of law.

Next is Ibori’s sister, Christine. She effectively bought three properties in the UK between the periods 2000 and 2005. She bought these properties with the assistance of a series of mortgages. She put up the initial deposit which the Crown say is the stolen funds from Delta state.

Christine has been charged in respect of allegedly deceiving the mortgage companies in respect of these. In all three applications, they say that she has exaggerated her income and therefore deceived the mortgage companies.

During the closing arguments at the Southwark Crown Court in London in the case against Christine; the prosecutor drew attention to the monies that Okoronkwo, deposited into Christine’s accounts, stressing that the evidence about bogus contracts was found in a search of Christine’s house conducted by DC Clark.

But according to the defence, these mortgages are all up-to-date and whilst one relates to her principal residence the other are buy-to-let mortgages. The mortgage companies have suffered no losses at all.

The prosecution claims the Delta State’s incumbent governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, and former Principal Secretary to former President Umaru Yar’Adua, Mr. David Edevbie, personally authorised payments that were made to one Christine Ibori.

The duo, according to the prosecution team, made the said payments to Ibori’s sister, Christine Ibie Ibori, while they were secretary to the state government and commissioner for finance respectively.

According to Ms. Wass, those payments included one of £69,000 and another of £79,000.  Reference was also made to N39 million in cash, which was delivered to her in two boxes, stressing that a company called KOLN was used  to transfer funds out of Nigeria for the benefit of the governor’s sister, and into her account.

On the issue of transfers, the second key witness was from Countrywide Paymasters who confirmed that it was common practice for the company to make international authority transfers on behalf of its clients outside the banking system. They achieved far superior exchange rates then were being offered by the banks. This is not illegal as they were fully regulated by the Nigerian Central bank.

The prosecution questioned how being a housewife in England had given Christine the authority to do business with the commissioner in Nigeria.

The case against Pogoson is that she was acting as James Ibori’s personal private assistant but however being paid for by Delta state. She also ran MER engineering limited. The defence was able to show that the Nigeria tradition provides for the personal assistant to be engaged by a governor and to be paid for by the state. They insist there is nothing wrong with this.

The prosecution said there were four main transactions, one of which involved diversion of funds into Christine’s account for her to invest in property.  In another account, which involved MER Company, money was diverted from Barclays in Knightsbridge to Schroders in Switzerland that was to be used to finance the purchase of a jet for Ibori.

During the course of the trial, evidence came to light of a file of documents which had transaction papers in respect of James’s activities in the 90s. There was clearly a dearth of activity which shows that Mr Ibori was an active business and this is an. Furthermore MER engineering limited had business interests in the rental of houseboats to companies like Shell and Chevron since 1997. The revenue yield from this business was in excess of $2 million a year. The defence have uncovered business dealings which were not government related pre-1999, in fact as early as 1992 which show a total income over the period to be in excess of $7 million.

The defence put forward that Ibori’s UK properties were all acquired from 1991 to 2005. There are in fact only three properties involved. The first is his property at Abbey Road which was acquired in 1991. Second was the main family residence acquired in 2001 and the final property was the Dorset won for his children’s schooling. There are no other property assets in the UK.

According to the defence, it was MER engineering that funded James Ibori’s share of the jet investment in the UK. Whilst the jet purchase was $20 million, Ibori’s funding was only $4.5 million. The rest was funded by third-party investors.

It appears that what has been published in the media up till now has been grossly exaggerated and sensationalised. Evidently, Ibori’s UK assets are nothing more than his three properties and are investment in the jet purchase.

Nigerians would be surprised that of all the billions of dollars that the Ibori associates are accused with embezzling; the only crime for which they are being presently tried is mortgage fraud! The inference is that the MET Police cannot produce evidence for the other crimes alleged. You may recall certain media talking of sums in excess of $80/100m dollars.

A legal counsel told that the judge has been extremely lenient towards the prosecution. Any application that has been made by the defence teams has been dismissed.

Enough latitude was given to the prosecution. An example of such was the issue surrounding the amendment of charges as against Udoamaka Okoronkwo. After the evidence had been given and closed, the judge agreed to allow the prosecution to change its indictment.

Another related to the strict direction of the charge to Udoamaka Okoronkwo not being able to tell the jury that all charges against her in Nigeria had been dismissed and the matter was being appealed, as the judge commented this would be unfair to her.

Effectively, she was prevented by Judge Hardy from being able to tell the jury that the case against her in Nigeria has been discharged and furthermore the allegations in Nigeria were identical to the ones being prosecuted in the UK.

However, the prosecution was also handicapped because they could not introduce evidence of corruption from Nigeria. They had to prove that the manner money was transfered from Nigeria infers money laundering. 

The UK prosecution has continually changed its case. In the end the defence teams pointed to the case being changed at least five times during the presentation of the prosecution trial.

In the end it seemed that the prosecution finally accepted that James Ibori was not a pauper but a very successful and wealthy individual from 1991. The defence teams identified a number of personal and private shareholdings which had been built up since 1991. The dividends have continually accumulated over the years.

As to the mortgage allegations, there is no supporting evidence to establish linkage of theft or corruption from Delta state. The defence teams repeatedly described the case as “sophistry”, in other words to clever and subtle but misleading reasoning.

A new dimension to the trial occurred on Wednesday 12 May. James Ibori was arrested by authorities in Dubai on suspicion of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud.

According to the UK authorities, Ibori “was detained at the request of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and is due to appear in court in due course.

“The UK authorities are seeking extradition to the UK.

“On 2 August 2007 an Application of Restraint was heard at Southwark Crown Court in relation to worldwide assets worth $35million belonging to James Ibori. The application was successful and made under the Proceeds of Crime Act. It related to business and private finances.

“On 1 October 2007 the application was reviewed at a further hearing at Southwark Crown Court and the Restraint was discharged. On 8 October 2007 leave to appeal the discharge was granted at the High Court and pending a full appeal by the Crown the Application of Restraint was reinstated.”

Meanwhile learnt that EFCC’s operatives have arrived in Dubai.

A source in the commission said: “Our operatives are already there. We also want Ibori extradited to Nigeria to answer charges on the disposal of 528m shares belonging to the Delta State Government”.

The EFCC had on April 13 declared Ibori wanted in connection with alleged diversion of the shares in Oceanic Bank to guarantee over N44billion facility granted Ascot Offshore Nigeria Limited by Intercontinental Bank.

Although Ibori had gone to court to seek redress, he had refused to surrender to the EFCC.

The development forced the Acting President to order the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ogbonnaya Onovo, to launch a manhunt for him.

An attempt in April by the police to arrest Ibori at his country home in Oghara, Delta State failed following resistance by some militants.