BY OKEY NDIRIBE, Uduma Kalu, EMMAN OVUAKPORIE & Ikechekwu Nnochiri
ABUJA— Oil magnate Femi Otedola, yesterday, appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics investigating the $3 million cash for clearance scandal but refused to speak in protest against the committee’s decision to hear him in secret.
Otedola’s appearance came as more audio recordings of the alleged bribe negotiations between him and Rep. Farouk Lawan emerged with Lawan allegedly promising to spring a surprise on his colleagues in his bid to exonerate Otedola from culpability in the fuel subsidy scam.
Unbowed by the revelations, Lawan yesterday approached an Abuja High Court and dared Otedola to release the video recording of him stuffing the bribe money in his cap.
Otedola’s appearance before the House Committee on Ethics followed a summon on him by the committee to appear yesterday. Otedola who appeared at the House Hearing Room at about 1.45 p.m. well before the scheduled 2.00 p.m insisted that he would not speak unless the session was open to the public and the press.
Otedola spoke through his lawyer Mr Babajide Koku (SAN) immediately after he left the House Committee conducting an investigative hearing into the allegation he levelled against Lawan.
Giving further reasons why his client won’t speak to the Committee in camera, Koku said Farouk Lawan had exhibited a high degree of inconsistency in his responses to the allegations against him.
According to Koku: “ Lawan has lied four times. He initially denied collecting any money from Otedola and later admitted”.
He continued: “ Again he said he handed over the money to the Chairman of the House Committee on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes Hon Adams Jagaba, but Jagaba has denied collecting any money from him.
“Therefore my client insisted before the Committee that he couldn’t say anything concerning Lawan in camera”.
Otedola’s refusal to give evidence before the Committee was in line with a statement he issued earlier and circulated among newsmen.
According to the statement which was addressed to the Chairman and members of the Committee: “This is a matter that has generated a lot of public interest and controversy. The House of Representatives Committee on the Management of Fuel Subsidy headed by Hon. Farouk Lawan held all its sittings in public. When this issue arose, the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics and privileges publicly stated that its investigations would be held in public. It is therefore surprising and curious that this Committee has made a u-turn to hold its investigative sittings in-camera. I have nothing to hide and will only speak on this issue when this investigation is conducted in a very transparent manner and the press and the general public are allowed to be present at the sittings of this Committee from the beginning of its investigation to its conclusion.”
However, Chairman of the Committee, Gambo Musa described Otedola’s decision not to speak before the Committee in camera as misguided.
Commenting further, Musa reminded newsmen that when the Committee summoned Lawan last week, he appeared in camera, adding that the decision of the Committee to carry out its assignment in secret was derived from the Constitution and Rules of the House.
He said: “Our decision is in line with the convention of the House”.
He further stated that members of the Committee pleaded with Otedola to change his position and explained the powers of the House to him but he still refused to speak.
“It is one thing to appear before the Committee and another thing to speak. Otedola refused to speak and insulted us ”.
He further stated that members of the Committee told Otedola that he could not dictate what procedure and rules the House could take in carrying out its assignment.
He continued: “We told Otedola about the consequences of his action but he still refused to speak.
“We told him he was not accused person before the House but only a witness”
He maintained that the oil magnate refused to answer all the questions put to him by the committee members.
He asked: “How do you investigate such a matter if he refuses to speak in camera?”
“He was just laughing at us. He told us he was a businessman who wasn’t hungry”
“Are we honourable members hungry people? Are you press men hungry people?”
He maintained that despite Otedola’s refusal to give evidence before the Committee, members would continue with their assignment and go ahead to invite other persons who might be required to appear before them.
Otedola appeared before the committee with his Lawyer and eight other aides. Members of the Committee arrived a short while later.
The venue of the investigative hearing was jam-packed by newsmen who were once again ordered out of the venue before the Committee commenced sitting.
The Chairman of the Committee Hon. Gambo Dan-Musa cited the crowded room as excuse for asking the journalists to leave despite their protests.
The committee was several weeks ago directed by the House to investigate the $620,000 bribe allegedly given by Otedola to Lawan to clear his company from the list of those that got foreign exchange allocation from the Central Bank of Nigeria for the purpose of importing petroleum products but failed to do so. Lawan was the chairman of the ad hoc committee that probed the petroleum subsidy payments scam.
The Committee had last week grilled Lawan for four hours. It ordered Otedola to appear before it yesterday.
Otedola’s appearance caught many observers by surprise as the oil magnate had last Monday dragged the House Leadership before an Abuja Federal High Court to ask for N250 billion as damages for relisting Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd among companies that were indicted by the report of the Adhoc Committee on Petroleum Subsidy.
Already, the Police Special Task Force (STF) is investigating the bribe allegation which Lawan admitted collecting but which he said was meant to be used as an exhibit against Otedola.
Another audio tape indicts Lawan
Yesterday, another audio report of the conversation between Otedola and Lawan on how to handle the bribery was broadcast by Channels Television. The station said the broadcast was part two of the purported discussion between Lawan and Otedola over the $3million bribery allegation scandal.
In the 112-second audio tape, two men said to be Lawan and Otedola are heard clearly discussing how the contents of a report should be watered down. The transcribed version of the audio indicates that the person tagged as Lawan is telling the other of the need to keep their discussions secret, as any leak could cause untold embarrassment. The first part of the audio was released on Monday.
Here is the transcript of the latest audio recording
Lawan: It wasn’t like my brother talking. That’s one. Secondly, please this thing that we are doing, keep it to yourself otherwise you will make it difficult for us …
Otedola: Okay, okay. I am now…
Lawan: Because somebody called me now and said that we said we are going to address it.
Otedola: Address what?
Lawan: Yea. Because if it is already out that we are going to do something, when we do it, people will think that we are doing it because we have been compromised. And you know that is something that errrrr… And if my colleagues get to hear about it, I wouldn’t be able to convince them. So keep it to yourself.
Lawan: Let it not be like anybody is aware of what is happening. If anybody asks you, simply explain that this thing, you know from your records. You have all records and you have made a case to the committee. You have sent your documents to the committee
Otedola: Yea, Yea
Lawan: Yea. It’s left for the committee… It’s left for the committee to decide what to do. Please keep it that way.
Otedola: Yea. God bless you. God bless you
Lawan: Yea. Because the moment it gets out now we are going to correct it. Then it means we have already Haaa… so let it be …
Otedola: Okay, okay
Lawan: I want to spring a surprise on the floor and only that is the only credible way I can do this. So please, please.
Otedola: God bless you. God bless you my brother. I have been crying. Anytime I hear your voice
Lawan: Yes. You know your sector is small. Everybody knows… and people are already saying … Somebody just called now and said Femi has gotten his way around you guys and he has already succeeded.
Otedola: That is not true. But let me also tell you one thing ….
Lawan: No, no, no, no. I am saying it because this is what I heard.
Otedola: But my brother, let me also tell you one thing. You know me as a person…
Lawan: It doesn’t have… I know… I don’t want…
Otedola: People just get up…
Lawan: I know. That makes it difficult. Just, just whoever… you know… no. I didn’t do this. I’m sure it must have been a mistake from the committee but I have sent a letter to set the record right
Lawan: That’s all
Otedola: Okay my brother
Lawan: Yea. Yea
Otedola: Okay. Great, okay
Otedola: Thank you.
Lawan dares Otedola to produce video tape
Apparently rattled by the audio tape that sought to establish his complicity in the $3 million cash-for-clearance scandal, Lawan, yesterday, dared Otedola, to go ahead and expose the video recordings where he was allegedly stuffing money into his cap.
Farouk, who spoke through his lawyers yesterday, said he was surprised that Mr. Otedola could blackmail him to the extent of releasing a “highly doctored and fabricated” audio tape to media houses.
While refuting the allegation that he traveled to Lagos to collect the alleged bribe money, Lawan, yesterday, told newsmen that he only received money from Otedola on two separate occasions at his room at Protea Hotel at Apo Abuja and at Otedola’s house at Aso Drive Asokoro also in Abuja.
Describing the released audio tape as “a devilish caricature”, Lawan urged Nigerians to give him the benefit of doubts, saying he would not rest until he proves that the primary intention why he collected the money was to uncover the level of corruption within the oil sector of the Nigerian economy.
Besides, Lawan said though Otedola has continued to tarnish his hard earned public image, he would not approach the court for redress pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation into the bribery saga.
Tracing the uncanny events that led to his travails, Lawan, through his lead counsel, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, recalled that he had on April 28, 2012, “shouted to the world with an alarm that some oil marketers were trying to bring a train load of dollars to bribe the committee and legislators so as to write a good report on them.”
He maintained that sequel to his complaint to the police, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, on May 9, instructed a commissioner of police, one Amodu Ali, to investigate the matter, saying the police boss equally wrote him a letter, urging him to cooperate with the investigating team.
According to him: “CP Ali followed this up on 16th of May and it was then that Farouk Lawan wrote a letter to the police saying he has submitted the money and complaint to relevant committee on drugs, narcotics and financial crimes of the House of Reps, as the rules required him to do.
“He therefore urged Police authorities to liaise with the leadership of the House over the matter. After then, Police wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House, Aminu Tambuwal on June 6, 2012, seeking his corporation towards investigating the statement Lawan made before it.
“During the whole of this period, Farouk was already interacting with the police having laid his complain. Is it not remarkable that it was only on the 11th of June that Otedola first told the world through Thisday newspaper that he carried out a “sting-operation”?
“Let us ask some questions because Nigerians are not fools. A sting operation is an operation in which a suspect is caught in the act by swooping in on the suspect as he is committing that crime. Otedola claimed he carried out the sting operation on April 22 and 23 but he did not say anything until June 11, almost 2 months later.
“No security agent came out to handcuff Farouk Lawan on money allegedly given on four successive occasions.
“The sum of $250, 000 was given to Lawan, another $250, 000 also to him, another $100, 000 to Emanalo, the secretary of the committee, another $20, 000 to Emenalo, yet, in none of these transactions did security agents come out and swoop on the alleged operators.
“It is clear that even if there was any video at all, it was something done personally by Otedola which he cannot show and that is why the SSS, till now, has never owned up that they carried out any sting operation; there was none.
“It is necessary for Nigerians to compare Otedola’s claims with Lawan’s statement that he collected the money quite alright, but as an agent provocateur.
“An agent provocateur provokes you to play along so as to commit an offence in order to use the proceeds of the crime as evidence against you. Which is why he could collect $250, 000 in his hotel room, go to his house and collect another $250,000 and at 3:47am of that June 24, he wrote a letter to chairman of the House Committee on Narcotics, saying this is the $500, 000 dollars that was given to us as a bribe, we have collected it to show as exhibit, that story is more credible and believable.
“It goes along with the alarm which he raised on the 28th of April; it also goes along with the police that stepped into the matter on the 9th of May.
“Mr Otedola has said that this money was collected from him in his house in Lagos, that was the dummy he sold to the whole world, and that after collecting the money, it could not contain in Farouk Lawan’s pockets so he had to put some under his cap.
“Farouk Lawan came to my chambers and debunked it and challenged them to produce the video. That said he never even wore a cap on the two occasions he saw this man.
“He said that Otedola actually gave him the first tranche of $250, 000 with some documents in his hotel room at Protea Hotel at Apo Abuja, he never stepped into Lagos.
“The last tranche of $250, 000 he collected as exhibit was at Otedola’s house at Aso drive in Asokoro Abuja.
“He said he never met Otedola in Lagos. The evidence has not been refuted by his accusers, yet, what did we see yesterday (Monday) on Channels TV, a caricature of a statement.
“Two voices were heard purportedly belonging to Otedola and Lawan. Even in the statement, Otedola was saying the money is too bulky, I cannot bring it to the airport, it’s at home, another voice purportedly being that of Farouk said, ok, so where do you want it to be collected, is it the airport? and Otedola said no, don’t you have a trusted person?
“It was obvious that Otedola was the one always putting the question. That audio started from the middle, we didn’t know the beginning. There must have been pleasantries exchanged before it got to the transaction stage.
“We didn’t hear the beginning; the tape was doctored, manipulated, engineered, surgeoned. Now, we did not get to the end, it terminated abruptly with ellipsis.
“What is it that was contained at the beginning and the end? If you take the statement itself for whatever it is worth, Mr Otedola is the one offering bribe, he is yet to tell the world if the $2.5m is a balance of an amount or the whole of an amount that was to be paid. What was the $2.5m for?
“Neither Zenon nor AP petroleum was mentioned in that tape. He is yet to answer so many questions and more importantly, Otedola had already said he gave $620, 000 to Lawan, (500,000 to him and 120, 000 to the secretary of the committee) he is the same person suggesting that the balance was $2.5m.
“If you add $2.5m to $620, 000, that becomes $3.420, 000 whereas he had maintained that it was $3m that they agreed on.”
“So, plus or minus even with multiplication, the entire story does not add up. It is a cooked story, doctored story and the security agencies and Nigerians need to look down beyond the present hysteria. Nigerians are entitled to be angry when an icon is about to be rubbished, somebody they had believed in, one of those few remaining people standing on their feet in terms of integrity.
“They have a right to be angry, but they must wait and hear from the other side because a coin must have two sides, a one sided coin is a bad tender. The second side is now coming out to show that someone is hiding the truth. Where is the video showing that Farouk Lawan was stuffing money under his cap?” he queried.