By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—An Abuja High Court, yesterday, released the former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Capital Market and Other Institutions, Herman Hembe and his deputy, Chris Ifeanyi Azubogu, on bail.
Trial Justice Abubakar Sadiq Umar, admitted the embattled lawmakers on bail after they took turns and pleaded not guilty to a two-count charge that was preferred against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, yesterday.
They were allowed to go home after they deposited N1million each as well as produced two persons that stood surety for them in like sum.
The trial court maintained that the sureties must be responsible citizens resident within the Federal Capital Territory, adding that their identity must be thoroughly verified by the Court Registrar before the accused persons would be released.
Specifically, EFCC, in the charge that was read in court yesterday, alleged that the lawmakers had at sometime in October 2011, dishonestly converted to their own use, the sum of $4095 (Four thousand, Ninety Five Dollars), being money that was given to them by the Securities and Exchange Commission as traveling allowance to PUNCTA CANA, Dominican Republic to attend a conference.
“There is no justification not to allow them on bail, I hereby grant the accused persons bail with N1 million each and two sureties in like sum, the sureties must be responsible citizens and approved by the registrar of the court,” he ruled.
Besides, the EFCC called five witnesses that testified against the accused persons yesterday, even as the court adjourned till October 8 for the prosecution and the defence team to file and exchange their written addresses.
It would be recalled that the lawmakers had earlier challenged their trial, contending that the high court was bereft on the requisite jurisdiction to try them over a charge they said was baseless and grossly incompetent.
They equally queried the legal propriety of the leave the court granted the EFCC to prosecute them, saying they would neither mount the dock nor enter their plea to the charge pending the determination of the preliminary objection they raised against the charge.
However, Justice Umar, dismissed their objections, saying he was satisfied that the anti-graft agency established a prima-facie case capable of warranting their prosecution.
Arguing through his counsel, Chief Jibrin Okutekpa, SAN, Hembe had urged the court to quash the charge, saying the House of Reps Committee on Ethics and Privileges, was still investigating the uncanny feud that ensued between him and ousted SEC DG, Mrs Arunma Oteh, when he headed the probe panel.
Alleging that EFCC falsified information with a view to ensuring their prosecution at all cost, the 1st accused person, Hembe, told the court that “the prosecution is nothing but persecution and a waste of Nigeria’s public money. By virtue of Section 89 of the 1999 constitution, it is the National Assembly that has the jurisdiction to investigate this matter.”
His arguments were adopted by the 2ndaccused, Ifeanyi, who through his own counsel, Chief Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN, argued that since the report of the House’ Ethics committee was yet to be released, it would not be in the interest of justice to try the accused person, saying “the court must rely on an investigative report before trial”.
“There is a case inadequacy of documents, so there is no case for the 2ndaccused person to answer to, especially as he sought to return the money through the Clerk of the House, only for the Director-General of SEC to ask him to keep the money, since there will be another conference. The absence of the DG of SEC in this case exposes the complicity in it,” he added.
Invoking section 167 (b) of the Evidence Act, Ikpeazu argued that, “the prosecution is bound to produce all criminal documents to the court to warrant trial and the absence of the DG of SEC in this case exposes the complicity in it.”
Oteh had at a public hearing that was initiated by the House of Reps, alleged that SEC, gave Hembe estacode and a first class ticket to attend a capital market conference in the Dominican Republic but he did not travel for the event.
In a swift reaction, Hembe, who subsequently disqualified himself from heading the probe panel on the basis of the allegations, presented documents to the lower legislative to prove that it was SEC, with Oteh’s approval, that offered N30m to the committee, contrary to her allegation that the lawmakers demanded bribe.
His evidence led the SEC DG to release a letter detailing requests she said was sent to the commission by the House probe committee.
She claimed that the agency was already processing the request for electronic payment but “smelt a rat” when it was approached a day to the hearing with another N5m cash request, which she claimed was a personal cut for Hembe as Chairman of the probe panel, saying allegation that she recklessly spent a whooping N30m on hotel bills in eight months, was false.
Likewise, Oteh was accused of spending N850, 000 and N85, 000 on feeding on separate days in the same hotel.
Sequel to the controversy, the House of Reps, ordered the Committee on Ethics and Privileges to within 21 days investigate the allegations, even as it mandated Hembe to submit himself for investigation by the EFCC, a process that culminated to the 2-count charge before the high court.