N43m fraud case: Court frees ex-Works Minister, Lawal

By The Citizen

The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, yesterday, dismissed the eight-count criminal charge brought against former Minister of Works, Mr Hassan Lawal, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.

Lawal, who was facing trial alongside one Mr Adewale Adesanya, who was an official of United Bank for Africa, UBA, was alleged to have defrauded the Federal Government to the tune of N43 million while in office.

The duo were said to have allegedly diverted contract funds to a fake account they opened with the UBA.

According to the EFCC, part of the looted funds were earmarked for the completion of Buto-Bagana Bridge across River Benue as well as erection of street lights from Abuja to Nasarawa State.

Lawal was said to have awarded the contracts while he was in government, only to allegedly divert funds approved for its completion to a private interest yielding account, with the help of the 2nd accused person.

However, Justice Adamu Bello discharged and acquitted the accused persons on the premise that the anti-graft agency failed to establish their complicity in the alleged crime.

Blaming the commission for what he termed 'shoddy investigations', Justice Bello, while upholding a no-case-submission entered before him by the accused persons, said he was convinced that the EFCC did not prove the ingredients of money laundering and fraud contained in the charge.

The judge maintained that the EFCC could neither establish that the account was not genuinely opened nor prove that the funds traced to the ex-minister accrued from illegal transactions.

Besides, the judge held that the 2nd accused was an official of the bank as at when the alleged crime was said to have been committed, adding that he merely did his work as a banker and could not be said to have conspired to launder fund meant for the execution of a contract.

The judge said: 'Prosecution failed to prove that the money in question was derived from illegal source, even when the accused gave the prosecution a lead that he got the money from other transactions, such as the sales of his assets, the prosecution did not bother to ask whether the transaction is real or not.

'Since the charge was in respect of the contract awarded by the Ministry of Works and Housing and deposits being alleged were made before the 1st accused became the Minister of Works, it could not be said that such deposits were from illegal proceeds.

'What now remains, having failed to prove money laundering and conspiracy as preferred in the charge, the accused persons are discharged of the charge and acquitted'.

Lawal had through his counsel, Mr Ibrahim Ishaku, SAN, insisted that funds found in his account emanated from genuine transactions made by his client as payment for a housing loan procured from the bank.

He urged the court to hold that he had no case to answer, even as he contended that the charge did not link him directly or indirectly with the allegation.

'My lord, this is a mere allegation which to me was brought about by the new political leaning of my client. In fact, Lawal did not launder any money or misappropriate monies made for the contract he supervised,' his lawyer argued.

However, the prosecutor, Mr Wahab Shittu, insisted that the ex-Minister connived with Adewale, an ex-banker and laundered fund in contravention of the Money Laundering Act 2004.

Meantime, the ex-Minister is currently answering to another 44-criminal count charge before the same high court over his alleged involvement in an N75billion contract scam.

It will be recalled that a Deputy Superintendent of Police and a lead investigator with the EFCC, DSP Chike Nwibe, earlier narrated before the court how the accused persons, siphoned funds budgeted for non-existing projects into fake accounts.

Nwibe who testified as the PW-1 in the matter, further told the court that between 2006 and 2009 when Lawal was Minister of Works, there was constant in-flow of cash into the said bank accounts, adding that at two instances, a man simply identified as Ambassador Balge, made huge deposits into the account with number 01033320106747.

The witness told the court that N12.5m and N15m were at different times, paid into the personal accounts of the accused person by Ambassador Balge whose real identity he said could not be traced, though he admitted that the purpose for which the money was paid could not be ascertained.

According to him, 'My Lord,   in the course of our investigation, we discovered that the 1st accused person opened a housing loan with the UBA and that though he made payments into the bank, it was not in respect of the housing loan but into an illegal account that was opened for him by the 2nd accused person.'

The commission said when it questioned the ex-Minister about how he got money to buy a mansion at Plot 1471A, Justice Mairan Nasir Street in Asokoro, Abuja, he claimed that he got the money partly from a loan facility granted to him by the bank, and from estacodes that accrued to him overtime.

It told the court that in a bid to conceal the property, the former Minister, registered its title deed in the name of one Wada M. Aliyu, who it said does not exist.

EFCC said N3m, N8.9m and N4m were part of the cash payments the 1st accused made through the 2nd accused person.

Likewise, the agency alleged that documents it recovered from the Ministry of Works showed that Lawal had at different times, pocketed $4, 500, $1, 905, $8, 200 and $4, 000, as his estacodes for a period of two years.

Nevertheless, the court yesterday said it was not convinced by the EFCC that the accused persons have any case to answer.