The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Tuesday arraigned Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President Paul Usoro (SAN) at a Federal High Court in Lagos, for an alleged N1.4 billion fraud.
Usoro was docked before Justice Muslim Sule Hassan on a 10-count charge, bordering on the alleged offences.
He pleaded not guilty.
Others charged with him are: Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Finance Nsikan Nkan; Accountant-General Mfon Udomah; Attorney-General Uwemedimo Nwoko and Margaret Ukpe said to be at large.
Also named in the charge was Akwa Ibom State Governor Emmanuel Udom, who the EFCC said was “currently constitutionally immune from prosecution”.
The arraignment followed Justice Hassan’s December 10 order that the EFCC should serve the charge on Usoro, who had arrived in court with 13 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) led by Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN).
At the beginning of proceedings, Olanipekun opposed his client’s arraignment pending a transfer of the case from Justice Hassan.
He told the judge that the defence had written a letter to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul Kafarati, seeking a transfer of the case to Uyo, Abuja or any other jurisdiction of the court away from the judge.
Olanipekun said: “I owe a duty to advise the court that the defendant made available to his lawyers, a copy of a letter dated December 17, 2018, addressed to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court praying for the transfer of the case to any judicial division between Uyo and Abuja or if in Lagos to any other judge apart from my lord presiding.
“The application is very innocuous and was written by virtue of the legal right of the defendant.
“We understand that a copy of the letter has been served on the court and since the letter is before the Chief Judge, the proper thing is to await his decision as a mark of respect for him.”
But, the EFCC counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, opposed him. Oyedepo prayed the court to discountenance Olanipekun’s submissions on the ground that the ruling of the court fixing yesterday for arraignment of the defendant had not been set aside.
He argued that the defence could only raise any objection after the defendant’s plea had been taken.
According to him, Section 9 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) governs the place of trial and enquiry, and requires that the charge be filed in the jurisdiction, where the alleged offence took place.
He argued that sufficient facts which would lead to a transfer of the case to Uyo or Abuja were not available.
“It was not the contention of the defence that the ingredient of the alleged offence did not take place in Lagos. The events that will lead to the transfer of the case to either Uyo or Abuja Division are not available,” Oyedepo said.
Besides, he argued that apart from the letter to the CJ, there was no formal application before the court seeking the judge to recuse himself from the case.
He urged the court to proceed with arraignment.
In a bench ruling, Justice Hassan held: “I have listened vehemently to the submissions of counsel and I have also read the letter written to the CJ.
“”The issue in view is narrowed down to whether the defendant can take his plea in the circumstance.”
The judge held that although it was not in dispute that the CJ reserved the right to transfer cases, the instant case was already assigned to his court.
He added that it was a rule that even where such application for transfer exists, the trial judge should continue with hearing of the case, pending any contrary decision.
The court then called on the NBA President to take his plea to which Usoro pleaded not guilty.
After his plea, Olanipekun prayed the court to admit Usoro to bail on liberal terms of self-recognisance as NBA President.
He added that Usoro’s International passport would be deposited with the court as a measure, adding that he would apply for same whenever the need arises.
Oyedepo did not oppose the application, but left same at the discretion of the court.
In another bench ruling, Justice Hassan admitted the defendant to bail for N250 million, with one surety in the like sum.
The court added that the surety must be owner of landed property within the court’s jurisdiction or a civil servant not lower than the rank of a Director in the Federal or State civil service.
The NBA President was further ordered to deposit his international passport with the court’s Deputy Chief Registrar (DCR), which will be verified for genuineness.
The court then ordered that Usoro be handed over to a counsel of the inner bar, Mr. E.B. Effiong (SAN), pending perfection of his bail terms.
He adjourned the case till February 5, March 5, and March 6, 2019 for trial.
In the charge, the anti-graft agency alleged that the defendant committed the offence on May 14, 2016.
The commission alleged that Usoro conspired with others to commit the offence within the jurisdiction of the court.
He was alleged to have conspired to convert N1.4 billion, property of Akwa Ibom State Government, which sum they reasonably ought to have known formed part of the proceeds of an unlawful activity.
The prosecution said the unlawful activity included criminal breach of trust, which contravened sections 15 (2), 15(3), and 18 (A) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011.