Nigeria: Alleged Fraud - Air Peace Boss Faces 105 Years in Jail If Found Guilty

(file photo)
26 November 2019

Allen Onyema, the Nigerian aviation executive who was recently accused by the United States of committing more than $21 million fraud, could spend up to 105 years in prison if convicted of a laundry of charges bordering on the alleged fraud.

Mr Onyema was indicted by a federal grand jury in the United States on November 19 on multiple charges bordering on criminal conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering.

According to the initial announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice and the full indictment (PDF) first obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Onyema was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud.

The Air Peace chairman was also charged with three counts of credit application fraud and 27 counts of money laundering. Mr Onyema faces a total of 35 counts -- each criminal in nature and carries specific penalties that involve either a hefty fine or jail sentence or both.

The charges were far greater than those leveled against Mr Onyema's alleged accomplice, Ejiroghene Eghagha, Air Peace's head of finance and administration.

Mr Eghagha was slammed with one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud, three counts of credit application fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft.

Both suspects denied the allegations in a November 23 statement and indicated their readiness to fight the charges in court.

Lengthy sentences

Neither Mr Onyema nor his lawyers have said anything about whether or not he would be going to America to defend the charges or when. But the details already made available by the U.S. authorities have provided a good idea of potential penalties that could come from the charges.

According to the indictment, Mr Onyema, aided allegedly by Ms Eghagha, raised several letters of credit to buy the same planes he had already purchased and added to Air Peace's fleet of commercial airliners in Nigeria.

Based on the dubious letters of credit, American banking giant Wells Fargo transferred more than $21 million to bank accounts of U.S.-based Springfield Aviation, a suspected shell company registered and controlled by Mr Onyema.

Wells Fargo paid the money to Mr Onyema in a series of transactions between February 10, 2017 and February 20, 2018, court documents said.

Mr Onyema then allegedly transferred the funds to different bank accounts in a series of 27 transactions between March and November 2017, the indictment said.

As part of the investigation, American authorities have already frozen bank accounts allegedly owned by Mr Onyema in the U.S. and Canada, trapping N5 billion ($14.2 million) in the cross-border measure.

The indictment said a final forfeiture of the funds would be pursued as part of potential penalties against Mr Onyema. Since the businessman has not been formally arraigned in court, prosecutors have yet to disclose possible sentences or fines.

But based on the counts already leveled against him, Mr Onyema could be sentenced to 105 years, including sentences that may run concurrently.

The maximum penalty for bank fraud (Title 18 Section 3144) is 30 years.

Mr Onyema was slammed with three counts of this, which means he could face maximum 90 years on bank fraud charges. But since the charges are likely to run concurrently, it means 30 years would be the maximum.

Attempt to commit bank fraud (Title 18 Section 1349) carries the same penalty as bank fraud itself. If Mr Onyema is found guilty of the lone count of attempted bank fraud, he could get the maximum 30 years in prison.

Three counts of credit application fraud (Title 18 Section 1014) also carry maximum 90 years' imprisonment at 30 years per count. Again, only 30 years would apply here if the three counts run concurrently.

The maximum penalty for conspiracy to commit credit application fraud (Title 18 Section 371) is five years.

The 27 money laundering charges (Title 18 Section 3144) carry a maximum 270 years at 10 years per count. Running concurrently, Mr Onyema would get a maximum ten years here also. The 27 charges are for each of the 27 bank transfers that Mr Onyema allegedly initiated between March and November 2017.

Altogether, Mr Onyema faces 105 years from the 35 charges.

Hefty fines

All the charges also carry option of fines, and in some cases both fines and imprisonment. The three counts of bank fraud carry a maximum $1 million each. Attempt to commit bank fraud carries $1 million maximum.

The three counts of credit application fraud carry a maximum of $1 million per count.

The 27 counts of money laundering carry a penalty of $1 million per count.

Although fines were prescribed as one of the penalties for conspiracy to credit application fraud (Title 18 Section 371), no specific amount was stated, indicating that this would be left to the presiding judge to determine.

Based on the prescribed fines, Mr Onyema faces $27 million in potential fines if convicted, and this may be with or without prison sentence.

Unknown paths

PREMIUM TIMES analysed the potential penalties for Mr Onyema based on information obtained from the Title 18 of the United States Code (USC), which is the main criminal code of the American federal government.

Mr Onyema is facing federal charges and most of the officials responsible for his investigation and indictment are from federal agencies.

However, additional factors may play out, depending on how the case proceeds.

These include whether Mr Onyema would ask his lawyers to negotiate a soft landing for him and the discretion of the judge that would be assigned to the case.

While our analysis looked at the maximum penalties, actual sentences for federal crimes are usually less than the maximum penalties prescribed by law.

The federal judge that would be assigned to try the case will determine how lengthy a sentence for a successful count would be after taking into account the federal sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.

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