Obinwanne Okeke, the Abuja-based businessman arrested earlier this month for Internet fraud in the United States, has hired a new lawyer to help fight off the criminal charges levelled against him by American authorities.
Mr Okeke hired John Iweanoge, a Washington D.C.-based attorney of Nigerian origin, to take over from Rahul Sharma, a public defender, PREMIUM TIMES learnt from court documents.
Mr Sharma was appointed by a judge to stand as counsel to Mr Okeke because the suspect did not appear with a defence lawyer at his initial hearing on August 9.
Mr Iweanoge notified the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia later in the day on August 9 that he was stepping in to replace Mr Sharma as Mr Okeke's lead counsel. He also said he had the suspect's consent to represent him in the trial.
Mr Iweanoge, lead attorney at The Iweanoges Firm, has been practicing law the U.S. since 1993, according to the firm's website. He has been running the law firm apparently with his family members.
In 2007, he was publicly reprimanded by the disciplinary board of Maryland Bar for misconduct. He protested the sanction in court and lost.
Mr Okeke, known widely in Nigeria as Invictus Obi, was remanded in custody of the U.S. Marshall Service indefinitely after his initial appearance before Theresa Buchanan, a magistrate. He had been arrested days before on August 6 in Dulles, Virginia, based on a criminal complaint filed against him by the F.B.I.
The foremost American law enforcement body had in June 2018 received complaints from Unatrac, an international subsidiary of heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, that Mr Okeke gained unauthorised access to the e-mail account of its chief financial officer and authorised a series of fictitious invoices to the tune of $11 million.
The F.B.I. also found that Mr Okeke had duped an American show manufacturer as part of a business email compromise (BEC) schemes that Mr Okeke and other accomplices had coordinated.
The grim options
Mr Okeke did not enter a plea at his initial arraignment on August 9, but he was remanded in custody indefinitely in accordance with the U.S. federal laws on the nature of the criminal complaints against him, according to Joshua Stueve, a spokesperson for the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Mr Stueve told PREMIUM TIMES that Mr Okeke had been presented with some options that would be decided in the coming days, even though no judge had been appointed to try the case proper.
"Since he was arrested on a criminal complaint, it means he could be held in custody pending trial," Mr Stueve said by telephone Thursday night. "At this point, he will either plead guilty or the U.S. will present the matter to a grand jury."
"The jury will decide whether to return indictment or not. If they decide to return indictment, he will be presented before a judge to enter a plea. If he pleads guilty, he would be sentenced. If he pleads not guilty, then a trial date will be set," the official added.
He also told PREMIUM TIMES that Mr Okeke had been moved from Alexandria to Norfolk, Virginia, where he would likely make his next appearance in court upon determination of a date.
"His initial appearance was in Alexandria, but his next appearance will be in Norfolk," Mr Stueve said.