By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
Erstwhile Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy probe, Mr. Farouk Lawan, who is facing bribery charge, on Tuesday, told an Abuja High Court that his proposed witness lost his brother to Lassa fever in Kano state last Sunday.
Lawan, who was billed to open his defence to the criminal charge the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, preferred against him, therefore, persuaded the trial court to adjourn the matter till a later date.
His lawyer, Mr Benson Igbanoi, who held brief for Chief Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, had after the case was called up, notified the court that though his client was ready to open his defence to the charge against him, he said it was regrettable that the only proposed defence witness was bereaved and could not attend the proceeding.
He said: “My lord we are very much ready to open our defence today, however, late Sunday night, we received news that the sole witness of the defendant lost a brother to the dreaded Lassa fever that hit Kano city.
“My lord in the circumstance, regrettably, we are unable to go on to open our defence today.
“We are therefore constrained to plead with my noble lord to grant us a short adjournment because our sole witness is so devastated.”
Igbanoi said the defence team had also communicated the development to the court in writing, with a copy of the letter duly served on ICPC’s lawyer.
In his response, the prosecuting counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, l confirmed that the letter dated January 27, was served on him.
Awomolo said he would in view of the circumstance, reluctantly concede to the request for the trial to be adjourned.
Following agreement by the parties, trial Justice Angela Otaluka adjourned the case till February 11 to enable the former lawmaker to produce his witness.
The trial Judge had in her ruling she delivered on October 17, 2019, held that Lawan had a case to answer with respect to the bribery charge the ICPC entered against him.
The court therefore dismissed a no-case submission the defendant filed to be discharged.
Lawan had after the prosecution closed its case with five witnesses, insisted that ICPC failed to by way of credible evidence, establish a prima-facie criminal case capable of warranting the court to compel him to enter a defence to the charge against him.
The ICPC had in the charge before the court, alleged that Lawan and the Secretary of the then Reps Committee, Mr. Boniface Emenalo, demanded an aggregate sum of $3 million from Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, Chief Femi Otedola, to give his company a clean bill of health in the fuel subsidy probe the House of Reps initiated on 2012.
Lawan was said to have pocketed the sum of $620,000 as part payment for the illegal deal.
ICPC alleged that Lawan acted contrary to section 17 (1) (a), section 8(1) (a) (b) (ii), and section 23 (i) of the Corrupt practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under section 8 (1) 17 (1) and 23(3) of the same Act.
Though the anti-graft agency initially charged the duo for bribery and corruption, it later amended the charge and converted Emenalo to a prosecution witness.
The ICPC had earlier tendered a video clip that showed Lawal collecting a parcel from Otedola.
The video was presented by the DSS, through its Principal Officer in charge of Technical Operations, Mr. David Ojataha.
On the directive of the Judge, the video which lasted for about three minutes, was played in the open court by the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Awomolo, SAN.
According to Awomolo: “My lord the video I just played are those of Mr. Femi Otedola and Hon. Farouq Lawal, where there was an exchange of parcel at Otedola’s house in Aso drive, Abuja”.
However, Lawal’s lawyer, Chief Ozekhome, SAN, while cross-examining the witness, said that the device used in playing the CD had no imprint of time and event in the video.
Ozekhome consequently contended that there was nothing to show that what the defendant collected from Otedola was bribe money.
Lawan’s lawyer equally insisted that there was also nothing in the video to suggest that bribery was discussed because such words like “bribe” was not heard in the video.
Emenalo who testified as the PW-1, earlier gave reasons why he accepted $100,000 from Otedola.
He told the court that he took the money to expose Otedola’s move to compromise members of the subsidy committee.
Emenalo said that he collected the $100,000 bribe money from Otedola in $100 bills.
He told the court that the first meeting he had with Otedola was on Sunday, April 22, 2012, with a follow-up meeting between them on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at the oil mogul’s Abuja residence at Aso Drive, Maitama.
He further told the court that he subsequently handed the money over to Lawan as exhibit.
Though Emenalo denied allegation that he received $20,000 bribe from Otedola during their first meeting, he admitted that it was during the second meeting that Otedola gave him the $100,000.
Similarly, Otedola, in his own testimony before the court, said it was the DSS that gave him $500,000.00 bribe money he offered to Lawan.
Otedola said the marked foreign currency that implicated Lawan was handed to him after he wrote a petition to the DSS.
In the said petition, the oil mogul said he revealed how Lawan demanded for $3million bribe to de-list his firm from House of Reps report that in 2012, indicted several companies in oil subsidy scam.
While being cross-examined by counsel to the defendant, Chief Ozekhome, SAN, Otedola told the court that the $500,000 was a part payment of the $3m Lawan demanded from him.
He said unknown to Lawan, he collected the bribe money under the supervision of the DSS.
“Lawan said he was going to exonerate my company after giving him the money”, Otedola told the court, saying he promptly brought the bribe demand to the attention of the secret service.
He said that shortly after he lodged a complaint before the DSS, security cameras were mounted in his living room to capture the exchange of money between him and the defendant.
Asked if he has the video of the meeting, Otedola said the clips were in DSS custody, revealing that Lawan collected the $500,000 in two tranches of $250,000 each.
Queried by Ozekhome on why the defendant was not apprehended immediately he was caught red-handed, the witness, said he did not know why the DSS failed to arrest Lawan at the moment he was receiving the bribe.