The crisis over the $3 million bribe-for-clearance rocking the House of Representatives raged on yesterday as the House expressed concern over the airing of the audio tapes purported to contain the conversations between its beleaguered member, Hon. Farouk Lawan, and Mr. Femi Otedola.
It said the airing of the audio tapes, whose two instalments were aired on Monday and Tuesday respectively, was meant to distract attention from the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Monitoring of the Fuel Subsidy Scheme.
The report is already receiving attention from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), with a view of prosecuting marketers who abused the fuel subsidy regime.
Also Wednesday, Otedola disclaimed the account of the House Committee on Ethic and Privileges probing the incident, saying there was no time he insulted the members or refused to answer questions as claimed by the committee chairman, Hon. Gambo Dan-Musa, on Tuesday.
Lagos lawyer, Mr. Festus Keyamo, however, has urged Lawan to resign his membership from the House to face trial, as it was obvious that he compromised his office during the fuel subsidy probe.
Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Zakari Mohammed, who made the position of the House on the controversy known Wednesday, described the airing of excerpts of the purported conversation between Lawan and Otedola as part of a grand plot to distract public attention from the subsidy probe report.
Mohammed, who exonerated the media from the plot, said by airing the tapes, the media were only playing its constitutional roles of informing, educating and entertaining members of the public on the issues of the moment.
The House, he added, is constitutionally handicapped to stop the drama playing out because the media must be allowed to play their role.
He, however, said for the country to run smoothly, every other sector must play its role to resolve the controversy arising from the bribery scandal.
"We cannot stop the television station from airing the audio tapes but for the system to operate, as much as possible, every sector of the Nigerian society must do its bit.
"The security agencies are there; they are watching. Policemen, anti-graft agencies are there and they should save us the trouble of going through all this drama.
"However, for us as an institution, we have distanced ourselves from this saga and we have stated in clear terms that the law must take its course. If allegations are made, the onus lies on those making the allegations to prove it.
"At the same time, we want to appeal that all agencies of government and all anti-graft agencies should do their job.
"But for us in the 7th Assembly, we will be focused and continue to do those things that we believe are in the best interest of Nigeria and Nigerians.
"We still appeal that the subsidy report should still be considered for whatever it is worth because this is a deliberate distraction calculated to take attention away from the rot in the oil sector. Unless we get it right, we would continue to dance in this vicious cycle forever," Mohammed said.
On Tuesday's encounter between the Committee on Ethics and Privileges and Otedola, he said the stalemate was unfortunate and should not have arisen, adding that as an institution, the House had no issue with Otedola and had not constituted itself into a court to try him.
According to him, Otedola was only invited as a witness in the bribery controversy since he had made the allegation against Lawan.
He faulted Otedola on his refusal to give his testimony in secret as demanded by the committee.
"We cannot say that because some men have means, they can now dictate the way an institution should conduct its affairs. Your means will definitely be within the purview of your estate that you control.
"The House of Representatives is not an extension of the estate of any individual. This institution is greater than any individual, including myself.
"The Ethics Committee did not go outside the law and did not do anything unusual. As far as we are concerned, you don't come to court for instance and tell the judge how he sits or how he talks. It is not possible," he said.
He clarified that contrary to the impression by some people, the House was not out to persecute Otedola or any other person but it was only trying to resolve the controversy.
But Otedola, in a statement by his lawyer, Mr. Babajide Koku, set the record straight on his encounter with the committee, which had summoned him to give his account of the incident.
The statement said contrary to Dan-Musa's claim, Otedola conducted himself with decorum and did not make any disparaging remark against any member of the committee.
It said Dan-Musa's statement was "unbecoming and underscored manifest bias."
It said Otedola did not refuse to testify before the committee as claimed by Dan-Musa, as he only insisted that his testimony should be taken in public and not in camera.
"The unfortunate misrepresentation of Mr. Otedola's comments at the meeting further reinforces his call for a public hearing," the statement added.
Also, Keyamo, who joined the fray Wednesday, raised some posers, which he said Lawan should answer to make people believe that he acted with honest intentions during his interaction with Otedola.
He said in a statement that from the various accounts of Lawan and Otedola as reported by the media, it was obvious that there was "definite communication" between the duo.
According to him, "The question of who initiated a relationship is completely irrelevant when determining the guilt or otherwise of the giver and taker of bribe money."
Keyamo said it was also obvious that $620,000 out of the $3 million allegedly demanded exchanged hands between Otedola and Lawan as none of them had disputed that.
His statement reads in part: "Otedola involved the State Security Service (SSS) and the scene was recorded when the money was handed over to Lawan to prove that he was pressured to part with the money.
"Even though Lawan claims he collected the money to expose Otedola, he (Lawan) did not involve any law-enforcement agency when collecting the money. So, how on earth did Farouk Lawan ever hope to later convince anyone that those dollars came from Otedola when Otedola's name is not written on the dollars? How did he ever hope to 'expose' him?
"A few hours after collecting the dollars, Farouk Lawan stood up on the floor of the House and instead of exposing Otedola, he was actually shielding him by convincing his colleagues to remove Otedola's company name from the list of indicted companies in the report.
"That was the point that Lawan was expected to tell the world that he just collected bribe money, and like has been done in the past, spill the money on the floor of the House. He did not do so.
"It was not until the scandal broke out in the press that Farouk Lawan did something. He first denied ever collecting money and said he did not go to Otedola's house and that if there is any such video, it must have been doctored.
"Less than 24 hours later, Lawan sang a different tune. He now said he actually went to Otedola's house to collect money, but it was to 'expose' Otedola.
"The only 'expose' (sic) Lawan claimed he did was to write a hand-written note to Hon. Adams Jagaba, Chairman House Committee on Narcotics and Financial Crimes, to purport to hand over the bribe money to him. Honourable Jagaba has since denied that this ever happened.
"Why did Farouk Lawan not approach one single law-enforcement agency with the bribe money? The bribe money that is the all-important evidence to 'nail' Otedola cannot be produced by Farouk Lawan now despite repeated demands by the police.
"How come Farouk Lawan treated his all-important evidence with so much levity that he did not make Hon. Jagaba acknowledge receiving the dollars in writing when he purportedly handed it over to him?
"On the other hand, it has since emerged that Femi Otedola kept all his audio and video evidence intact and has decided to release them piecemeal to the public.
"From the above sequence of undisputed facts, it is only a hired goon, mischief maker, or a complete fool that will not easily come to a definite conclusion in this ongoing disgraceful and shameful episode rocking the National Assembly: Farouk
Lawan collected bribe purportedly on behalf of his committee to doctor his report but somewhere along the line the operation, like most robbery incidents, went terribly wrong.
"All the drama playing out now cuts the picture of a destroyed, disgraced and thoroughly embarrassed Farouk Lawan clinging on so desperately to anything to save his finished image and political career.
"I use the phrase 'National Assembly' advisedly because, even though it has sought to distance itself from the whole episode, it is indisputable that the bribe was solicited for and was offered to a committee of the National Assembly which was doing an assignment of the National Assembly.
"Farouk Lawan only collected the money on behalf of the said committee. Whether he gave (it) to other members is another matter altogether.
"However, the taped conversations between Otedola and Lawan only confirm what both parties actually agreed took place: that they negotiated payment of bribe money several times by telephone.
"The only point of divergence is that both claim the negotiations were sting operations on the other. But while Otedola has evidence of his sting, Farouk Lawan has none.
"By denying his obvious voice on those tapes, Farouk Lawan has made another U-turn: he is giving the impression that he never spoke to Otedola on the phone whereas he had earlier confirmed that there were several phone conversations between them and that he has call-logs to prove this.
"So, question to Lawan: during those phone conversations, what were they talking about? Was it about girlfriends or politics?
"I thought the only honourable thing Lawan should have done is not to deny the obvious, but to say those taped conversations were part of his plan to 'play along' and catch Otedola red-handed.
"So Farouk Lawan needs to now come up with his own version of those conversations between himself and Otedola because Otedola has provided to the public his own version.
"In any case, the endless search for dollars or the debate about the voice on those tapes is most unnecessary. The law says what has been admitted needs no further proof.
"In other words, what the recovery of the dollars and the voices on the tape seek to establish has since been established by the confessional statement of Farouk Lawan himself; that is, he had several discussions with Otedola on the phone over the bribe money and he actually collected it.
"I am aware that many Nigerians are not happy with the way Femi Otedola hobnobs with all governments in power (and perhaps gets undeserved business concessions by so doing), but in this instant case, whether you like Femi Otedola or hate him, by reporting the matter to the SSS (the law says the SSS has all the powers of police officers too) and gone ahead to record the transaction between him and Lawan, Otedola did all that a responsible citizen under the circumstances should do. Whether the sting was thorough or not is no longer his business.
"By the way, the purpose of arresting someone whilst collecting bribe is to establish the fact that the suspect actually collected it. But the video has already established that fact. Farouk Lawan has confessed to that fact.
"And in any case, no Nigerian would have believed the SSS or the police if Farouk Lawan was arrested for any reason a few hours to the presentation of that report. If, for instance, Farouk had claimed he was forced at gunpoint to go to Otedola's house and then was arrested there, Nigerians would have believed him.
"In addition, Farouk Lawan would not have had the opportunity to perform the act for which the bribe was collected on the floor of the House the next day. But as it is, the SSS allowed him to roast in his own stew. In my view, the SSS did perfectly well in this case.
"The bare-faced denial by Farouk Lawan of his voice on those tapes, and the denial of his complicity despite this overwhelming evidence, gives the clear impression that we are dealing with a hardened, unrepentant crook, who is like a thief caught with his hand in the cashbox, but still claims he was only checking the colour of the money.
"In Japan, such persons like Farouk Lawan would have committed what they call 'hara-kiri'. In America and Europe, he would have resigned immediately from public office in shame and begged for forgiveness.
"Unfortunately, here in Nigeria and aided by dubious hired goons, he continues to deny the obvious. What a shame!
"As for the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, their so-called investigation of the scam is nothing but a laughable sham, a diversionary and disgraceful enterprise with a pre-determined end, an unconstitutional and illegal exercise and Nigerians must ignore it.
"Farouk Lawan must stop this dance of shame and save that House of whatever is left of its credibility by resigning from office immediately and face his criminal trial squarely. It is, indeed, himself and his hired goons that are turning this episode into a theatre of the absurd, and not the other way round."