- US Court issues arrest warrant for Onyema
- Seizes $14m in Bank Accounts
- I’m Innocent, Ready to Defend Myself – Onyema
Hours after the chairman of Air Peace Limited, Allen Onyema, and and Ejiroghene Eghagha, Air Peace’s head of finance and administration, were indicted for alleged money laundering and bank fraud in the United States, a warrant of arrest has been issued against them by a US court.
They were indicted for allegedly laundering suspicious funds in excess of $20 million dollars in the US.
It has also emerged that the US authorities have also frozen about $14.2m in bank accounts linked to companies registered by Onyema.
The arrest warrant was signed by Justin Anand, an American magistrate of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Georgia, on November 19, and authorised US Marshals Service to take him into custody, online medium Premium Times reported yesterday.
Mr. Onyema and Ejiroghene Eghagha both strongly deny the allegations, saying they were prepared to prove their innocence in court.
The charges first made public by the United States Department of Justice late Friday said Onyema used several companies he set up in the US to launder funds and commit bank fraud through issuance of counterfeit letters of credit.
Some of the companies’ bank accounts in the US and Canada had been frozen with their substantial balances as part of the investigation, court documents obtained by Premium Times have shown.
The documents showed that $4,017,852.51 was seized from JP Morgan Chase Bank account number ending in 5512 held in the name of Springfield Aviation Company, LLC.
Another $4,593,842.05 held in Bank of Montreal with account number ending 7523 in the name of Springfield Aviation Inc. was also seized.
The report said the American government also traced and seized $5,634,842.04 held in Bank of Montreal with account number ending in 515 in the name of Bluestream Aero Services, Inc.
American law enforcement authorities indicated in the charge document that efforts had commenced to secure final forfeitures of the funds.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Onyema said he was innocent, noting that the indictment only contained charges.
“I am innocent of all the charges and the US government will find no dirt on me because I have never conducted business with any illegalities.
“Be rest assured that I also have my lawyers on this and these mere allegations will be refuted. I never laundered money in my life, neither have I committed bank fraud anywhere in the world. Every Kobo I transferred to the US for aircraft purchase went through the Central Bank of Nigeria LC regime and all were used for the same purpose.
“The American companies that received the funds are still in business. I never took a penny from any US or Nigerian bank. I am willing to defend my innocence in the US courts,” the Air Peace CEO stated.
Daily Trust on Sunday could not establish before press time yesterday if the US authorities had contacted the Nigerian government to demand Oyema’s extradition, but the US and Nigeria have a mutual legal cooperation agreement on extradition of suspects with criminal charges which has led to the extradition of some Nigerians to the US over alleged fraud cases.
U.S. Attorney, Byung J. “BJay” Pak in the statement, said: “Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud.
“We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”
The US charge claimed that in years following the founding of Air Peace, Onyema traveled to the United States and purchased multiple aircraft for the airline.
However, according to the statement, over $3 million of the funds used to purchase the aircraft allegedly came from bank accounts for Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited, and Every Child Limited.
It added: “Beginning in approximately May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema.
“The letters of credit were purportedly to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace.
“The letters were supported by documents such as purchase agreements, bills of sale, and appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.”
But the charge said the supporting documents were fake as Springfield Aviation Company LLC, which is owned by Onyema and managed by a person with no connection to the aviation business, never owned the aircraft, and the company that allegedly drafted the appraisals did not exist.
“Eghagha allegedly participated in this scheme as well, directing the Springfield Aviation manager to sign and send false documents to banks and even using the manager’s identity to further the fraud,” it added.
The US authorities however reminded members of the public that the indictment only contains charges, and the defendants are presumed innocent and it would be the government’s burden to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt at trial.
Onyema, yesterday, vowed to vigorously defend and prove his innocence. He and Eghagha denied the allegations, describing them as “strange and unfounded”.
Their rebuttals were contained in separate statements by the law firm of A.O Alegeh & Co as they both maintained their innocence and said they would defend themselves in the US court.
The Air Peace founder recently became a national hero when he airlifted hundreds of stranded Nigerians from South Africa in the wake of xenophobic attacks in that country. Over 400 Nigerians were airlifted from South Africa free of charge, a move lauded by majority of Nigerians.
Air Peace is Nigeria and West Africa’s largest airline which recently made an ambitious order of 13 Embraer aircraft to join its fleet of over 25 aircraft.
The airline became the first carrier in Nigeria to register a wide-bodied 777 aircraft which it recently deployed on international trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, even as it plans to launch more routes.
According to Dr Umar Gwandu, Special Assistant (Media) to Minister of Justice, Ababakar Malami, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation was not in receipt of any mutual legal assistance request over the matter as at close of work on Friday, November 22, 2019.