Investigation: How FBI, U.S Prosecutors Convicted Nigerian on Frame-up Charges (1)

By Abdallah el-Kurebe

EMERGENCY DIGEST- It is common perception that the US justice system is fair and just. This investigation, based on some evidence and other reports find two justice systems, one for the whites and the other for racial minorities, especially the blacks. The investigation uncovers innumerable instances of real life cases of the most egregious forms of injustices in the U.S. Examples:

Court exonerates black man after 42 years in prison: A Missouri black America man, Kevin Strickland, was wrongfully convicted of a triple murder in 1978 and imprisoned in 1979 at age 18. He has been exonerated and released after 42 years in Missouri prison. The National Registry of Exonerations’ data logged since 1989 reveals this as the 17th longest and wrongful sentence in the U.S. history.

Court dismisses case against 4 black men after 72 years in prison: In another example of racial injustice, the case of the Groveland Four, the four black men accused in a 1949 rape in Florida, has been dismissed after 72 years in prison. A circuit court judge in Lake County has cleared the charges against the men and issued a ruling that effectively exonerated them of the crime. “We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” Gladson said at a news conference following the judge’s decision.

Manhattan District Court to exonerate alleged killers of Malcom X after 55 years in prison: Yet, the two men, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, convicted in 1966 for allegedly killing Malcolm X, will be exonerated by the Manhattan District Court. Their exoneration, after discovering grave errors in the case, is coming from a 22-month investigation conducted jointly by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men. They found that prosecutors and two of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department — had withheld key evidence that, had it been turned over, would likely have led to the men’s acquittal.

Jury awards man who has spent 26 years in prison $6m after finding police fabricated evidence: A federal jury has awarded a North Carolina man, Darryl Howard $6 million after a jury in Winston-Salem found former Durham police detective Darryl Dowdy fabricated evidence in the case and trial that resulted in Howard’s conviction in 1995 of killing a woman and her daughter in 1991. Howard was sent to prison for more than 20 years. In 2017, Howard filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused Dowdy, the city of Durham and others of actions that resulted in his being wrongfully convicted and the Durham County judge vacated Howard’s convictions citing police and prosecutorial misconduct.

The common denominator with these examples is that all the victims of these grave injustices are black. Also, the common thread in these examples is that the evidence against the victims was generally insufficient to convict them. In other words, according to available information, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that in the U.S. justice system there is a perpetual scapegoating of innocent people, especially the blacks. In fact, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989, nearly 3,000 people that were wrongfully convicted have been exonerated. “About half of them are black, 35% White and 12% Hispanic.”

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While innocent black people are wrongfully accused, convicted of crimes they did not commit; the disparities in punishment for the whites and that for racial minorities on similar offences have recently been acknowledged by a U.S judge. Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr, United State District Judge for the Western District of Tennessee — the same district where Abegunde was indicted and prosecuted — had raised concerns that prosecutors in the Western District of Tennessee bring harsher charges against black defendants than white defendants for similar crimes. Judge Fowlkes also raised concerns about racial discrimination — by prosecutors in the Western District of Tennessee — in at least three different cases.

In this investigation, Olufolajimi Abegunde’s story of indictment, prosecution, and conviction in the U.S, is yet another without evidence of wrongdoing — as far as the trial transcripts obtained, have shown.

According to court proceedings as well as a large throve of discovery documents, Abegunde relocated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2014 to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at Texas A & M University in college station, Texas. Upon graduating with the class of 2016, and recognizing opportunities – that resulted from the increase in demand for currency exchange, and remittances services especially by Nigerian at home, and in the diaspora –in the remittances industry, Abegunde incorporated FJ Williams Inc. doing business As (DBA) TranzAlert. The authors’ found that TranzAlert, a financial technology start-up was duly licensed and registered with all the extant industry regulatory bodies including the financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) U.S. Department of the treasury, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance, and the Central Bank of Nigeria. According to court records, these licenses and registrations permitted TranzAlert to engage in the currency exchange, and international remittance business.

Also read:How Hushpuppi planned to swindle English premiership club of $124m

In the available financial regulatory documents, obtaining operational licenses by TranzAlert required rigorous actions and uncommon resources, both in the U.S and Nigeria.

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The beginning of Abegunde’s travails

The investigation found, according to records of court proceedings, that Abegunde’s travails began in August, 2016 when his long-time friend Ayodeji Ojo visited the U.S. from Nigeria along with his pregnant wife and infant daughter. Ojo and his family were accommodated by Abegunde at his home in Atlanta, Georgia. In an interview with the authors’, Ojo said at the time of the visit, he had a wholly legitimate check of $29,900 that was issued to him by Bank of America. Ojo intended to cash the check and utilize the funds for expenses associated with his family’s trip, including medical expenses related to his pregnant wife.

According to Ojo, after making several failed attempts to cash the check at multiple Bank of America branches — due to its size, he was advised by a banker at the Bank of America to open a new bank account at another bank, to allow the check go through clearing process and then the funds would become available to Ojo. Ojo approached Wells Fargo bank which required him to provide a valid identification document, a U.S. mailing address and a U.S. mobile phone number. “I informed the Wells Fargo banker that I was a visitor in the U.S. and did not have a U.S. mailing address and a U.S. mobile phone number. After asking, the banker accepted that I could use Abegunde’s address and mobile phone number to open the account”.

According to the records of court proceedings, the bank account was opened on August 29, 2016, and Ojo was able to access the funds two days after without any challenges.

After a three-week stay in the U.S, which involved staying in Abegunde’s home and travelling to other states, Ojo and his family returned to Lagos, Nigeria via Amsterdam, Netherlands on September 16, 2016 flying with Air France flight No KL0587 Resa, operated by KLM Royal Duch Airlines.

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In an interview, Ojo confirmed that around the first week of October 2016, he needed to exchange the Nigeria Naira currency for the United State Dollar currency. As such, he contacted an informal vendor – Leke Adenuga, who after agreeing on the exchange rate, requested that Ojo provide his U.S. bank account for the deposit of USD$9,000, which was the equivalence of the amount agreed. The transaction was consummated, and Ojo eventually received the $9,000 in his Wells Fargo bank account that he had provided Leke Adenuga.

On October 11, 2016 around one month after Ojo had departed the U.S., around two months after Ojo had opened the account at Wells Fargo bank, and two months after OJo accessed the proceeds of the wholly legitimate $26,900 check, according to court records, an investigator with Wells Fargo bank, Brian Ancona called Abegunde on his mobile phone, the same mobile phone number Ojo had utilized to open Ojo’s Wells Fargo bank account. He said that a certain Luis Ramos Alonso had inadvertently deposited $9,000 into Ojo’s bank account, and was seeking a reversal of the $9,000 deposit. Court records further stated that Abegunde told Ancona that the account owner was in Nigeria and that he attempted a three-way call to connect Ancona with Ojo but the effort was however unsuccessful. Ojo eventually called Abegunde back, and after Abegunde conveyed Ancona’s urgent message regarding the reversal, Ojo immediately agreed and authorized the reversal of the $9,000 deposit. When Ancona called Abegunde back, Abegunde conveyed Ojo’s agreement authorizing the reversal, and Ancona expressed his profound gratitude for Abegunde’s cooperation in achieving the reversal.

Also read:NDLEA: Drug Barons and Assets Forfeiture in Nigeria

At trial, Brian Ancona confirmed that his phone call resulted in the reversal of the $9,000 that was deposited into Ojo’s Bank account. Under cross examination  at Abegunde ‘s trial,  Abegunde’s attorney asked Brian Ancona: “And you placed that call to that telephone number… based on the content of that call, it ended up with a reversal of the deposit that had been in that account, correct?” In response, Brian Ancona said: “Yes” . Brian Ancona further said: “Mr. Ojo did not protest when I asked if he will return the funds”

Further, Abegunde’s attorney asked Ancona: “And based on the information, based on your inquiry, the money was immediately told to be paid back to the person for whatever purpose, right?” In response, Ancona said: “Within a short period of time, yes”. (See Document 353: Brian Ancona testimony, March 12, 2019, Page ID 3032) here: https://free-efjay.org/transcripts?docId=353&pageId=3032 ). Brian Ancona’s testimony at Abegunde’s trial establishes that Ojo did not hesitate to authorize the reversal of the funds when he became aware that the $9,000 deposit was inadvertent.

In an interview conducted while in the correctional facility, Abegunde said his intervention in Ancona’s call and Ojo’s reversal order of the $9,000 order was a noble act that solved a situation. Abegunde further said he was however taken aback when early in the morning of March 15, 2017, two FBI agents — Kevin Hall, and Tyson Fowler of the Atlanta Field Division of the FBI — visited his home to inquire about Ojo. According to Abegunde, one of the agents pulled out a copy of Ojo’s Nigerian passport data page, and asked if Abegunde knew the bearer of the passport data page. Abegunde said he confirmed to the agents that Ojo was a long-time friend who he had accommodated during Ojo’s visit to the U.S. in August 2016. Abegunde also said he confirmed to the agents that he had granted Ojo permission to utilize his address and mobile phone number to open a bank account with Wells Fargo bank for the reason that Ojo resides in Nigeria and neither had a U.S. address nor a U.S. mobile phone number. According to the records of courts proceedings as well as the report prepared by the agents, Abegunde and the agents engaged in wide ranging convivial discussions about Abegunde’s remittances business and fraud in general. In these discussions Abegunde vehemently and categorically condemned all forms of fraud.

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According to excerpts of the report prepared by the agents regarding their discussions with Abegunde, “Abegunde reported that he was friends with Ayodeji Ojo and that Ojo was a Nigerian banker. Abegunde advised that he was not aware of Ojo’s involvement with transferring money to Nigeria or whether Ojo knew people in California or Texas. Abegunde stated that Ojo was a person with integrity and would not participate in fraud schemes. Abegunde advised that he had spoken with Ojo regarding FJ Williams becoming a money transfer business. Abegunde needed a Nigerian banker to help get a license with the Central Bank of Nigeria. He was trying to make FJ Williams a competitor against Western Union. Abegunde stated that that FJ Williams complied with applicable U.S. anti-money laundering and “know your customer” regulations. According to Abegunde, FJ Williams offered an online wire transfer service that eliminated the need for physical store locations. Abegunde was aware of the extent of fraudulent activity that occurred in Nigeria and condemned it. In Nigeria there was a black market currency exchange that offered better rates than the Central Bank of Nigeria. A Nigerian that needed U.S. currency contacted a seller and paid him in Naira. The seller then contacted an associate in the U.S. who had obtained U.S. currency from U.S. citizens by false information. The associate then deposited the U.S. currency into the Nigeria’s U.S. bank account. The Nigerian used the money to pay for things like medical bills. Abegunde was convinced that only the person who first obtained U.S. currency by false information was committing fraud”.

The FBI agents’ report further stated that “On the same day, Ojo contacted the case agents and advised that Abegunde had let him know that the agents had stopped by his residence. Ojo stated that he had used Abegunde’s address to open a Wells Fargo Bank account, but not for anything else. Ojo reported that he was not in a business relationship with Abegunde. Ojo would bring things like food to Abegunde from Nigeria. According to Ojo, Abegunde had asked for help with getting a money transmitter license in Nigeria. Ojo reported that he visited the United States for vacations and he was recently in the United States for the birth of his child in El Paso, Texas. Ojo needed U.S. currency to pay for the birth which he received from Leke Adenuga via a wire transfer into his Wells Fargo account from Javier Alonso; however, the bank took the money back and closed Ojo’s account. Ojo advised that he had made similar transactions in the past to pay for medical treatments for his wife. Ojo acknowledged that he had sent money from the U.S. to Nigeria several times in amounts around $10,000, but he did not have details. Ojo stated the money was left over from vacations.”

According to Abegunde, with the benefit of hindsight, two questions by the agents stood out, and should have raised thunderous alarm bells. The questions were asked by agent Tyson Fowler. The first was “How is it that you can afford a place like this?” and the second was “why do you Nigerians like to defraud we Americans?” Also, according to Abegunde, after the second question, Kevin Hall appeared to have an adverse reaction to the question and Fowler ceased going further.

According to court’s record, Abegunde offered the agents his full cooperation by providing them Ojo’s contact information. Furthermore, the agents’ report state Abegunde also ensured that Ojo contacted the agents’ shortly after they departed Abegunde’s home.

For Abegunde, his decision to hospitably open his doors to the FBI agents and engage in unfiltered innocent discussion with them — in the absence of competent legal representation — was what led to his undoing.

“In my idealistic naivity, I was merely attempting to make the Agent understand that my business – FJ Williams Inc. – and the FBI had a shared interest in the prevention and elimination of fraud. That is why I told them I ‘was aware of the extent of fraudulent activity that occurred in Nigeria and condemned it.’ Remember, I spoke with Brian Ancona of Wells Fargo just five months prior, and that experience was fresh in my memory. Also, don’t forget that there was a financial crisis in Nigeria around that time, and the Government had stopped providing U.S. Dollars through official channels. So people and businesses that needed U.S. Dollars had no choice but to access U.S. Dollars through informal channels; which is a fancy way of saying the black market, in Nigeria.” Abegunde went on “Now consider this, you are in Nigeria, and you need to pay hospital bills in the U.S.; you come across an informal vendor who agrees to sell you U.S. Dollars, and deposit the said U.S. Dollars into your U.S. bank account. I told the agent that there is absolutely no expectation for such a buyer to know the sources of the seller’s funds. I also insisted that if indeed the funds to be deposited into the said U.S. bank account were fraudulently obtained, there is no mechanism available for the buyer to know this. I also vehemently stressed that the buyer – that does not know that the said funds were illicitly obtained – cannot be said to have committed fraud; and that only people that obtain funds fraudulently, and people that undoubtedly know that the funds were obtained illegally are guilty of fraud. What is wrong with that explanation? When you buy dollars from Malams [black market vendors] in Nigeria, do you ask them where they got the U.S. Dollars from?”

Abegunde continued, “I plead with you, go and read the transcript of Agent Kevin Hall’s testimony at trial. He confirmed that I was more informed than him about the remittances business. He also confirmed that I condemned all forms of fraud. Please check the transcript. I have been locked up for more than four years because of a harmless conversation with FBI Agents I opened my doors to, welcomed into my home, and fully cooperated with; and also because I granted a long-time friend – a man with an unblemished reputation – permission to use my address and phone number to open a bank account.”

Ojo immediately contacted the agents when Abegunde informed him that his attention was required by the agents and OJo, upon calling the agents realised that the objective of their seeking his attention was because of the $9,000 deposit in Ojo’s account six months prior, in October 2016. Ojo stated in an interview that “I called them [Tyson Fowler and Kevin Hall] through the telephone and we spoke at length. They told me they would reach out to me if they have any further questions.”

The agents’ statement confirms that Ojo explained the origins of the $9,000 transaction. Ojo told them that he had paid a certain Leke Adenuga — at an agreed upon exchange rate — the Nigerian Naira equivalent of $9,000, and that Leke Adenuga facilitated the $9,000 deposit into Ojo’s Wells Fargo bank account.

According to trial documents, FBI Special Agent, Kevin Hall corroborated the fact that Ojo persistently called the agent shortly after they departed Abegunde’s home. Under cross examination at Abegunde’s trial, Abegunde’s attorney asked Agent Kevin Hall, “Approximately how soon after the visit did he call [Ojo]?” In response, Agent Hall said, “The address [Abegunde’s address] is located maybe 15mins from our office. As we left, we left our business cards and asked Mr Abegunde,  if he had contact with Mr. Ojo, to go ahead and have him call us. By the time we left his apartment and went straight back to our office, both myself and the other agent had multiple missed calls on each one of our phones: and then as I was standing at my desk, reviewing the phone calls, another phone calls came in. The person who answered the phone identified himself as Mr. Ojo.” Abegunde’s Attorney asked Agent Hall further, “And what  if anything, was discussed?” and Agent Hall responded, “I asked him about the Bank of America account, the use of the 1014 Brookwood Valley Circle address, and whether or not he had participated in any fraudulent wired transactions.” Abegunde’s attorney then asked Agent Hall, “Did you learn anything?” Agent Hall then responded by saying “Yes, he said that he indeed used the address to open a bank account, the purpose of which was to receive some money, approximately $20,000. He said that he did get the $20,000: but the bank who sent the money immediately sent the money back, return the funds and closed the account”. (See Document 353: Kevin Hall testimony, March 12, 2019, Page ID 3195-3196) here: https://free-efjay.org/transcripts?docId=353&pageId=3195 ).

As to whether Ojo had any prior existing relationship with Luis Ramos Alonso, Ojo vehemently stated that “I have never met Alonso. I did not know Alonso from anywhere. I did not speak to Alonso because I have never met him or had any business deal with him. The unfortunate $9000 deposit by the said Alonso was made on 6th October, 2016 and reversal was done on 14th October, 2016 and the account was closed on that date.”

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According to Ojo, he sent an email to the FBI agents, including Leke Adenuga’s contact information. The email, which I sighted, had the subject line ‘‘investigation” and addressed to [email protected] on Thursday, March 16, 2017. The email reads: “Good day Kevin, my name is Ayodeji Ojo from Nigeria. We spoke as it regards illegal money transfer, kindly find below the details of the person that I bought money from Leke Adenuga +2348****677.”

According to Abegunde, throughout his engagement with the FBI agents, they never mentioned Alonso or the $9,000 transaction. Abegunde said he only became aware of the underlying cause of the agents visit when Ojo relayed to him the contents of Ojo discussion with the agent and the agents’ report corroborates this fact.

This investigation revealed that unknown to Abegunde and Ojo, on August 24, 2017, the Assistant United States Attorney, Debra Ireland of the Western District of Tennessee in Memphis, convened a grand jury without further clarification and without further reaching out to Abegunde, Ojo or Adenuga whose contact information had been provided. And also without evidence of actions that rise to the level of crimes, indicted Abegunde and Ojo on charges of Wire Fraud Conspiracy, Money Laundering Conspiracy and Aggravated Identity Theft. Along with Abegunde and Ojo, several other individuals were indicted in the alleged Conspiracy. Abegunde and Ojo have continually insisted that they have no knowledge of, and have never associated with the other individuals charged in the indictment. Court records corroborate that no evidence was presented during trial to connect Abegunde and Ojo on the one hand and any of the other individuals on the August 24, 2017 indictment on the other hand.

Alonso’s testimony at trial makes it clear that he did not know Abegunde prior to Abegunde’s arrest and subsequent detention at the West Tennessee Detention Facility (WTDF) in Mason, Tennessee. Under direct examination by Alonso’s attorney, Alonso was asked “When is the first time you saw Mr. Abegunde?” In response, Alonso said “When he [Abegunde] get in Mason, in jail.” Alonso’s attorney then asked “Have you ever spoken to him before that?” Alonso responded by saying “No, never.” Alonso’s attorney further asked “Had any communication with him whatsoever before that?” Alonso answered “No, not, nothing.” Finally, Alonso’s attorney asked Alonso “Did you even know that he existed before that?” Alonso said “No.” (See document 334: Javier Ramos Alonso testimony, March 18, 2019, Page ID 2500-2501here: https://free-efjay.org/transcripts?docId=334&pageId=2500 ).

As to whether Alonso knew the individuals he sent money to, including the funds that were deposited into Ojo’s bank account; the FBI case agent, Marcus Vance testified at trial that Alonso did not know these individuals. Under cross examination by Alonso’s attorney, Agent Vance was asked “To your knowledge, is there any indication that Mr. Ramos Alonso knew any of the individuals that the monies were disbursed to?” In response, Agent Vance said “It is my understanding that he neither knew who was sending him the money or who he was sending the money to.” (See document 353: Special Agent Marcus Vance testimony, March 12, 2019, Page ID 3139 here: https://free-efjay.org/transcripts?docId=353&pageId=3139 ).These testimonies by FBI Special Agent Vance, and Ramos Alonso establish that fact that there was no prior contact between Alonso on the one hand; and Abegunde or Ojo, on the other hand.

Lamenting his predicament in an interview, Ojo stated that they never replied to my mails ever since then (March 2017) and when they did not get back to me, I did not envisage there were issues especially because Alonso’s $9,000 was reversed from my account. There was no loss, no victim, no damage and no beneficiary.

According to Abegunde and Ojo, they were neither aware that they were under a federal investigation in the U.S. nor were they aware that they had been indicted. But this changed on February 7, 2018; six months after the Grand Jury in the Western District of Tennessee returned the indictment.

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