By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen yesterday told the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, sitting in Abuja that his asset declaration forms submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, were tampered with.
Onnoghen insisted at his resumed trial that the Form 001 he filled in 2014 and 2015, were no longer the way he submitted them, to the CCB, querying why the hitherto bound documents appeared “in loose form” before the tribunal, alleging that it was tampered with, with some of the pages missing.
Earlier, a senior investigative officer at the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, Mr. James Akpala, yesterday, admitted that the charge against Onnoghen was filed before his team concluded investigation on the allegation that he falsely declared his assets.
Akpala, the star prosecution witness, PW-1, testified before the CCT, where the embattled CJN is answering to a six-count charge that preferred against him by the Federal Government.
Aside allegation that he failed to declare his assets as prescribed by the law, the Federal Government had in the charge, alleged that Onnoghen operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to Section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
The Federal Government had insisted that it was the CCB that okayed Onnoghen’s trial based on certain infractions discovered in his asset declaration forms.
The Mr. Dalandi Umar-led tribunal had in a bench ruling on March 11, granted FG the nod to call witnesses and tender evidence against the defendant, who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25.
At the resumed proceedings yesterday, the prosecution presented Mr. Akpala as its first witness.
Led in evidence by FG’s lawyer, Mr. Aliyu Umar, SAN, the PW-1, told the tribunal that he was a member of a three-man team of investigators that uncovered alleged infractions in asset declaration forms the defendant submitted before the CCB.
The witness tendered in evidence six sets of documents that included a copy of the petition he said led to Onnoghen’s trial, as well as his bank account details. The FG equally tendered through him, two asset declaration forms the suspended CJN submitted in 2014 and 2015.
The petition dated January 7, 2019, which was sent to the CCB by a civil society group under the aegis of Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, was admitted in evidence as Exhibit 1.
My forms tampered with, by Onnoghen
Meanwhile, before the asset declaration forms were admitted, Onnoghen, through his lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, alleged that it was tampered with. Awomolo said he would raise his client’s objection to the admissibility of the documents, in his final written address.
“We have some reservation on the documents’ we will not object in the interest of justice but we have reservations that would be addressed at the end of the day,” he added.
In his evidence-in-chief, the witness told the tribunal that the petition was handed to his team for investigation by his superior at the CCB, Mr. Samuel Madojemu, on January 9.
“The petition was authored by Chief Dennis Aghanya of the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, alleging breach of Code of Conduct for Public Officers, including non-declaration of assets and false declaration of assets, against Justice Onnoghen, the CJN.
“Thereafter, the team wrote to the Federal Political Officers Unit (of the Bureau), Asokoro, requesting the defendant’s asset declarations forms received from 2000 to 2009.
“The department responded. The two asset declaration forms were examined and filed in the case file,” the witness stated.
No idea where forms were kept — Witness
Under cross-examination, the witness told the tribunal that he was not aware that the CCB had a central register where asset declaration forms submitted to it by public officers are kept. He said he also had no idea of the number of asset declaration forms the Bureau issued from 1993 to 2019.
The PW-1 maintained that the constitution mandated every public officer to go to the nearest office of the CCB to declare their assets.
Responding to further questions, the witness said: “I have never worked in the department where asset declaration forms are issued to public officers. I have never worked in the department where the forms are verified.”
He said the petition was delivered to the CCB on January 9 and forwarded to his team on January 10.
“We requested for records of his accounts from the bank on January 11.”
Asked if he would be surprised to know that the charge against Onnoghen was filed on January 10, including the list of witnesses, the PW-1 said: “I cannot answer that question.”
When he was shown a copy of the charge and the day it was filed, the witness said: “As at January 10, we had not taken the statement of the defendant. We concluded our assignment on January 11.”
At that juncture, Onnoghen’s lawyer asked him: “So Mr. Akpala, will I be correct to say that within 24 hours that the petition was received, investigation was concluded and an order secured from the tribunal to prefer charges against the defendant?”
The witness replied: “Yes, that is correct. We requested for documents and they were forwarded to us, which we examined. Based on examination we conducted on the documents, the charge was filed.”
‘We didn’t know charges were filed while defendant’s statement was being taken’
Onnoghen’s lawyer then asked him: “When you obtained statement of the defendant at the Supreme Court, around 1p.m., on January 11, you did not tell him that a six-count charge had already been filed against him?”
The witness said: “My Lord, I am an investigator, I do not work in the legal department.
“At the time the defendant recorded his statement around 12:30pm, the team had no idea that the charge had been filed.
“About 2p.m., when we got to the office, we had not written our report then. We finished our report about quarter to 3p.m. The report was addressed to the Deputy Director, Intelligence, Investigation & Monitoring.”
Asked if he would be surprised to know that as at that 3p.m., when the team submitted its report, FG had already secured leave of the tribunal and preferred charges against Onnoghen, the witness said: “My lord, I cannot answer this question. All I know is that we filed our report after we obtained statement of the defendant. We were not aware that the charge was already filed.”
He told the tribunal that his team did not at any stage, involved the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, in the investigation.
Asked if he would also be surprised that some of the bank documents FG tendered in evidence against the CJN, were actually addressed to the EFCC, the witness said. “My lord, I cannot answer.”
Earlier in his testimony, the PW-1 told the tribunal that the defendant submitted the first asset declaration form as Justice of the Supreme Court from June 8, 2005 to November 22, 2014.
He said two Union Bank accounts were declared in the form. According to him, the form was received and acknowledged by the CCB on December 14, 2016. He said the second asset declaration form was when Onnoghen was appointed as the CJN.
In the form, he said the defendant declared five Standard Chartered Bank accounts and two Union Bank accounts. He said the defendant also submitted the form to the CCB on the same December 14, 2016. He added that after the team’s work, an investigation report was filed.
‘How investigation was conducted’
Narrating how the investigation was conducted, the PW-1 said: “After the routine investigation process, the team wrote to the Department of Federal Political Office under the CCB requesting for the defendant’s asset declaration records from 2000-2019.
“The two assets declaration forms that the team received were examined and filed in the case file. Other members on the team include Abu Isaac, Deputy Director and Samuel Madujemu, Assistant Director, all of Intelligence, Investigation and Monitoring.
“The petitioner was invited to make a statement and his statement was filed in the case file. On January 11, having examined the defendant’s asset declaration forms, the receiving officer, Auwal Yakasai was invited and the schedule officer, Ikpeme Amba was equally invited and their statements recorded.
“The team proceeded to Standard Chartered Bank requesting for the defendant’s account statement with the bank, account opening documents and certificate of identification. The bank responded.
“During examination, the team realised that the account opening package was incomplete and the account officer, Ifeoma Okagbue, was notified. She now came on March 6 with the complete account opening document and her statement was recorded.
“On January 11, about 12 noon, the team visited the defendant at his office at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Abuja. We met his secretary, Jane Esu Edu, who led us to him. He read through the petition and gave an oral explanation to the team concerning the allegations contained in the petition.
“My superior, Madujemu, asked him if he was willing to record his oral explanation in writing or the team should go and come back some other time. The defendant said he was willing to record his oral statement.
“He brought out a plain paper but the team informed him that CCB has a cautionary form for statements and he was informed that he needs a witness to observe the writing of the statement who could be a lawyer or a reputable person.
“The defendant called his secretary, Jane Esu Edu, to witness the statement. She sat beside the defendant and the defendant recorded his statement in his own handwriting. Intermittently, he went to his inner chamber to seek audience with his visitors. After some time, he came back, continued and ended the statement. The defendant signed the statement and leader of our team, Mr. Madujemu and myself counter-signed,” the witness added.
Subpoena for bank officials
Meanwhile, shortly after the witness was discharged, FG’s lawyer requested for an adjournment, even as he applied for a subpoena to be issued against officials of Standard Chartered Bank for them to appear and testify before the tribunal.
The CJN equally notified the tribunal that he was scheduled to appear before the National Judicial Council, NJC, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Before the matter was adjourned till Thursday, the tribunal chairman, Mr. Umar, said his panel would no longer accept any medical report from a private hospital.
“Henceforth, if the defendant gets sick or not able to attend his trial on health ground, the medical report must come from government hospital and not from a private hospital, we cannot accept that any more,” Mr. Umar added.
It will be recalled that the CJN had on March 12, when full-blown hearing was originally scheduled to commence in the matter, failed to appear before the CCT over a claim that he suffered toothache and high blood pressure.
His lawyer tendered a medical report that indicated that he was mandated by his doctor to observe a 72-hour bed rest.
However, on the same day, the suspended CJN, lodged an appeal to challenge the decision of the tribunal to proceed with the trial despite a motion he filed to challenge its jurisdiction to entertain the charge against him.
In his three grounds of appeal, Justice Onnoghen maintained that the CCT panel erred in law in its interpretation of section 396(2) of the ACJA, with respect to his application challenging the constitutional jurisdiction and competence of the proceeding before it, “when they deferred ruling on the application to the conclusion of trial when the issue of jurisdiction is a threshold issue which ought and must be determined immediately”.
According to him, “The Chairman and members of the Code of Conduct Tribunal erred in law In the interpretation of Section 396 (2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 1015 when they ruled that the ruling on the applicant’s application challenging the constitutional jurisdiction of the tribunal and the application asking the tribunal’s chairman to rescue himself on grounds that he had demonstrated acts which showed bias and partiality in the proceedings against the appellant, shall be determined along with the final judgment on the merit of the entire case and thereby denied the appellant his right to fair hearing under section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended.”
Specifically, Onnoghen had in his objection, queried the validity of the six-count charge against him, contending that FG failed to respect established judicial precedents by not allowing the NJC to firstly investigate the allegation against him, before it rushed the matter to the CCT.
He argued that failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on assets declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to the NJC, rendered the charge invalid.
He urged the CCT to abide by a subsisting Court of Appeal decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391, to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws