By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, yesterday, okayed three aides to the former governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva, for trial over allegation that they conspired and diverted N2 billion from the state treasury and shared among themselves.
Justice Donatus Okorowo, who dismissed an application that sought to prevent the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, from prosecuting the accused persons on grounds that the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke Bello, SAN, did not authorise the initiation of criminal proceeding against them, said he was satisfied that a prima-facie case was successfully established against them by the anti-graft agency.
Those ordered to appear before the trial court on October 11 for trial were the former Commissioner of Finance in Bayelsa State, Mr Sylva Opuala-Charles; former Director of Treasury, Mr Abot Clinton, and the erstwhile Director of Finance, Mr Anthony Howells.
The EFCC told the court that the accused persons had at various times between October 2009 and February 2010, connived and secured loans from Union Bank Plc, in the guise of using the fund to augment salaries of civil servants in Bayelsa State, alleging that they subsequently divided the monies among themselves.
Though the former Accountant General of Bayelsa state, Mr Francis Okokuro, was earlier listed in the charge, however, he was delisted after he agreed to testify against the other accused persons.
Besides, EFCC alleged that on or about January 22, the accused persons converted N380 million, property of the Bayelsa State Government, through the account of one Habibu Sani Maigidia, a Bureau de Change operator with Account No. 221433478108, in FinBank Plc, with the aim of concealing the origin of the proceeds of the illicit funds.
They were said to have committed an offence contrary to Section 14(1) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition Act) 2004 and also punishable under Section 14(1) of the same Act.
In its bid to prove the complicity of the accused officials, a lead investigative officer of the EFCC, Mr Adebayo Adebanjo, told the court that the six-count charge against them, culminated from a petition he said was forwarded to the agency by some persons under the aegis of “Concerned Citizens of Bayelsa State.”
He said: “My lord, in the course of our investigations into the allegation, we discovered that the Bayelsa state government entered a loan agreement with Union Bank Plc in 2009 and the terms of the transaction was contained in an offer letter.
“We also found out that about N3.1 billion was taken as collateral, as well as discovered that about N380 million earmarked for the settlement of salary of civil servants in the state, found its way into the security votes indicating that the said money was not used for what it was meant for.
“My lord, though N50m payment voucher dated January 21, 2010, was signed in favour of a construction company, Ensen Benmer Ltd, we did not come across anything like an instruction from the Bayelsa state government for the payment of such money.
“We visited the company only to discover that it was non-existing, we wrote to the Corporate Affairs Commission, C.A.C, and got both the Certificate of Incorporation and Articles of Association used in registering the said company and found out that the address therein was a fake one,” he added.
Meanwhile, ruling on a “no-case-submission” that was made by the accused persons with a view to quashing the charge against them, Justice Okorowo, yesterday, maintained that going by the totality of the proof of evidence before the court, they each have explanations to give regarding how the N2billion was pilfered from the coffers of the state.
The judge noted that since the EFCC contended that they obtained loan by false pretence and having proved that the three accused persons were signatory to the treasury of the state whilst Sylva held sway, he said the onus was on them to establish their innocence before the trial court.
“From the proof of evidence and statements of the four witnesses that were produced by the prosecution, there is need for the accused persons to make further explanations as they were directly linked to the charge. I therefore hold that the amended charge against them is competent and that this court had the requisite jurisdiction to entertain this matter,” the judge ruled.
Furthermore, the court relied on the decided case of FRN Vs Olabode George, and section 167 of the Criminal Procedure Act, CPA, to hold that the EFCC counsel, Mr Festus Keyamo, though a private legal practitioner, has the right to exercise delegate prosecutorial powers of the anti-graft agency.