In a scandalous replay of the episode, a few years back, when Justice Abdullahi Kafarati, then of the Federal High Court Enugu, offered an option of N3.5million fine to Lucky Igbinedion, former governor of Edo State for corruption offences, his younger brother, Michael Igbinedion who is being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC for siphoning N25billion from the Edo state treasury during the period his elder brother held the reins as chief executive, today received a fine of N3million from Justice J. Liman of the Federal High Court, Benin.
The anti-climactic denouement to a trial that was marked by a series of drama and unconscionable adjournments became ominous Wednesday April 29, 2015 when the trial judge failed to sentence the accused persons having found them guilty on some of the charges in the 81-count information preferred against them by the EFCC. Instead, he fixed the sentencing for the next day, April 30, 2015 but it was clear the direction the pendulum was going to swing, as the two accused persons, Charles Eboigbodin, personal assistant to Lucky Igbinedion and Michael Igbinedion, though allegedly committed the same offence of money laundering, were however convicted on different counts.
While Eboigbodin and PML Nigeria Limited were convicted on counts 50 to 59 for colluding to conceal the illicit origin of funds as stipulated under Section 14 (1)(b) of the Money Laundering (prohibition) Act, Michael Igbinedion was convicted on counts 79, 80 and 81 for receiving cash in excess of the stipulated threshold . The offence covered by these counts under Section 15 B of the Money Laundering Act carries both “a fine of not less than N250, 000 or more than N1million or a term of imprisonment of not less than 2 years or to both fine and imprisonment.”
When the court resumed today for sentencing, counsel to Eboigbodin and PML Nigeria Limited, Richard Ahonaruogho urged the court to exercise its discretion and award a fine on PML Nigeria Limited and Eboigbodin as first time offenders.
Counsel to Igbinedion, Abubakar Shamsudeen also prayed the court to tamper justice with mercy in sentencing his client. “The second convict confided in me and he is remorseful and repentant, and your Lordship has unfettered discretion to exercise option of a fine. Section 15(2) of the Money Laundering Act has given my Lord the ability to exercise the sentence with an option of a fine not below N250, 000 or N500, 000 and not more than N1, 000,000. My Lord, he is a first time offender with no previous record of criminality”, he said.
But prosecuting counsel, Tayo Olukotun, who held brief for Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, told the court to impose the stiffest punishment allowed by law on the convicts. He contended that given the huge amount involved in the case, the reputation of the court was at stake if it grants an option of fine to the accused persons.
He urged the court not to be swayed by the plea of leniency by the defence lawyers, pointing out that “the convicts have been on bail and had been travelling in and out of the country and even after their conviction yesterday, they still went home, so the court has been lenient enough”.
According to Olukotun, “the position of the law is clear on the punishment for the various counts for which Patrick Eboigbodin, PML Nigeria Limited and Michael Igbinedion had been convicted. Eboigbodin must serve the sentence as his offence has no provision for an option of fine, while the counts on which Igbinedion was convicted has an option of fine, imprisonment or both fine and imprisonment. We urge your Lordship to administer both the option of fine and imprisonment on Igbinedion”
After listening to counsel, Justice Liman proceeded to pronounce his sentence on the convicts.
He sentenced Eboigbodin to two years imprisonment but gave Igbinedion an option of N1 million fine on each of the three counts for which he was convicted and in default, two years imprisonment.
The judge also wound up PML Nigeria Limited and all its assets forfeited to the Federal Government. He also ordered the company to pay N1 million on each of the ten counts for which it was convicted. In addition, Justice Liman discharged and acquitted three of the companies involved in the case: Gava Corporation Limited, Romrig Nigeria Limited and PML Securities Company Limited.
The convicts who were docked on an 81- count charge had pleaded not guilty upon arraigning setting the stage for a full trail. In the course of trial, the prosecution called several witnesses to prove its case.
It would be recalled that during trial, a prosecution witness Mr. Ajoyo Sowale, an Accounts Officer with the Guaranty Trust Bank, identified various account statements and account opening documents of the convicts and confirmed to the court that several lodgements were made into the accounts, and that he printed the account statements and got them certified by the appropriate authority.
Another witness Mr. Eriyo Amadiayagbon David who was Personal Assistant to Micheal Igbinedion also told the court how he was instructed on several occasions to make lodgements into his (Igbinedion) GTB account and those of Romrig Nigeria Limited and Gava Corporation. According to David, he usually received cash from the Accountant at the Government House and paid into the account of the second accused person. “And after paying the government entourage, the remaining cash was usually given to the ADC to the Governor,” he stated. David further identified his name on the printed account statement of Michael Igbinedion which is part of the exhibits before the court.
Abdullahi Hamza an EFCC operative who was also a witness in the trial, gave detailed account of how state funds were diverted by the convicts for personal purposes, such as buying of shares, and how funds were transferred into the account of Ekpenyong and Sons, a company owned by the first accused person, Eboigbodin.
The parties adopted their written addressed in November14, 2014, while judgment was reserved for December 1, 2014. But a series of adjournments forced delay in the delivery of the ruling, On April 10, 2015; the parties had to re-adopt their written addresses after the expiration of the 90 days constitutionally prescribed for judgment to be delivered after the adoption of written addresses. April 17 was again fixed for ruling but this too was moved to April 27.
When justice Liman finally delivered his ruling on April 29, 2015, after putting it off for two consecutive days( Monday, April 27 and Tuesday, April28 ), he found the two accused persons guilty on some of the counts. The judge convicted Eboigbodin for money laundering on counts 50-59 in line with the provisions of Section 14 of the Money Laundering Act, while Igbinedion was pronounced guilty as charged on counts79-81.
Wilson Uwujaren, Head, Media & Publicity, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission