The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has questioned the chairman and owner of Zinox Technologies Limited, Leonard Stanley Ekeh, and two other officials of the company over a shocking N170 million contract fraud allegation.
The Zinox boss is accused of conspiring with the other officials to hijack and illegally execute the contract awarded by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) to an Ibadan-based IT firm.
Mr. Ekeh denied the allegation, and told PREMIUM TIMES not THENIGERILAWYER the petitioner was trying to blackmail and extort Zinox.
“As a businessman, anybody can write a petition against you,” he said.
But details of the alleged fraud have shocked investigators, who are probing how Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, based in Ibadan, Oyo State, lost the FIRS contract, yet discovered over a year later that the same job had been executed in its name.
Citadel Oracle said it lost the offer after it refused to pay bribe.
The EFCC took over the case after a petition was sent to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, years after the police refused to charge the case to court, despite establishing the facts of the matter.
The former Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, said he preferred the matter be resolved through civil processes.
The Force Criminal Investigation Department of the police began its investigation in 2013, and arrested and detained suspects.
Years after, Mr. Arase advised in a May 14, 2015 letter that the “civil matter should be allowed to run its full course to prevent a miscarriage of justice”.
How things started
The alleged fraud began in April 2012 after Citadel Oracle tendered for the supply of 668 computers to FIRS at N170.3 million, the head of the firm, Joseph Benjamin, said.
On October 22, 2012, an e-mail from the secretary to the FIRS tenders board, P.B Hena, invited the company to tender for the maintenance/servicing of fire alarm systems at the western regional office.
Mr. Benjamin said shortly after being shortlisted as preferred bidder, he was introduced to the chief executive of a Port Harcourt-based IT company, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited, Onny Igbokwe, who claimed to have FIRS insiders who could influence the contract process.
The meeting was arranged by Princess Kama, Citadel Oracle’s appointed representative in Abuja during the bidding.
At the meeting in Lagos, Mr. Benjamin said Mr. Igbokwe spoke of his relationship with the Zinox boss, Mr. Ekeh, and how, with support from associates within the FIRS, they could decide who got the contract.
He said Mr. Igbokwe asked him to either accept N15 million and hands off the contract, or pay N85 million and execute it.
Mr. Benjamin said he rejected the offers and opted out of the deal. The company promptly disengaged Ms. Kama. It lost the contract.
But, by August 2013, over a year later, Mr. Benjamin said his company made a shocking discovery.
While at the Ibadan office of FIRS to file the company’s tax returns for the year, officials there accused Citadel Oracle of under-declaring its earnings and not including an N8.1 million withholding tax and value added tax in respect of a N170 million FIRS contract.
Mr. Benjamin said he immediately suspected Mr. Igbokwe and co, and wondered whether they had gone ahead to execute the contract using his firm’s name.
Citadel Oracle launched an investigation, and the findings were startling.
Officials said they realised those who impersonated the firm cloned its official headed paper, with which they issued an acceptance letter for the FIRS contract.
To facilitate payment of the contract sum, they said, the suspects approached the Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, branch of Access Bank where some of its officials allegedly connived and availed them original copies of documents used by Citadel Oracle to open its corporate account.
The fictitious account No. 0059202675 at Access Bank, was opened on a public holiday, Monday, October 1, 2012, PREMIUM TIMES confirmed. Meanwhile, in its original filings for the contract, Citadel Oracle used a First Bank account, and not Access Bank account.
“How FIRS came to accept the Access Bank account it paid the contract sum into and not the First Bank account, which was accompanied by a letter of recommendation from the bank management guaranteeing to provide finance to the company, remains a mystery,” Mr. Benjamin said.
After weeks of delay, Access Bank spokesperson, Abdul Imoyo, said on Monday that he would make consultations and respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ enquiry.
Also, in the documents filed for the contract, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited’s office address was listed as Suite A11 New Banex Plaza, Aminu Kano Crescent, Abuja.
This newspaper confirmed the address is the Abuja office of Ad’mas Digital Technology Limited owned by Mr. Igbokwe.
Even more alarming, Citadel Oracle found that a resolution purportedly issued by its management conferred the power of attorney on Chris Ozims, the Group Company Secretary/Legal Adviser for Technology Distribution and Zinox Group.
In the resolution, Mr. Ozims, along with Folashade Oyebode, a director of Technology Distribution, and Mr. Igbokwe, were listed as Citadel’s “directors” and signatories to the account.
In his statement after his arrest in 2013 over the contract, Mr. Ozims told the police the trio were appointed through a December 18, 2012 Citadel Board Resolution. But, none of them was either among the owners of the company or on its Board.
When PREMIUM TIMES sought to speak with him shortly after his invitation by the EFCC, Mr. Ozims declined. “The matter is currently before the court. We have to wait till the appropriate time,” he said.
Mrs. Folashade equally did not comment over her involvement in the matter. “Oga, I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said when PREMIUM TIMES called to inquire before immediately terminating the call. Subsequent calls to her were not answered.
The EFCC spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that Mr. Ozims and Ms. Oyebode were quizzed by the commission, alongside Mr. Ekeh.
Mr. Ekeh’s wife, Chioma, was also invited by the EFCC on August 18 for questioning. But Technology Distribution wrote back to say she had traveled to the United States for a family obligation.
PREMIUM TIMES also confirmed that Mr. Igbokwe and Ms. Kama had earlier been interrogated before submitting their written statements to the anti-graft agency.
After the company submitted an Access Bank account, the FIRS made the first payment of N53.763 million into the fictitious account for the supply of 233 laptops.
Three days later, another payment of N62.531 million hit the account from FIRS account with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
About 24 hours after, the N62.531 million was withdrawn from the account. The same day, another N37.842 million was lodged in the account as payment for the supply of 164 laptops.
Checks with Hewett Packard (HP), where the laptops were purportedly sourced, showed there was no purchase order No. FIRS/PD/10/12/12/564 which the so-called Citadel Oracle claimed to have been delivered to FIRS.
Mr. Benjamin said there were compelling reasons to suspect the N62.531 million transferred from the account to unknown beneficiaries may have been transferred to some FIRS officials who facilitated the fraud.
The FIRS refused to comment on the case.
A freedom of information (FOI) request by PREMIUM TIMES, seeking clarifications on the agency’s role in the controversial contract, has not been answered nearly two months after.
Further analysis showed Charles Adigwe, an accountant at Technology Distribution, had on January 25, 2013, advised the company’s managing director, Chioma Ekeh, who is Mr. Eke’s wife, to approve the transfer of N115.268 million from the fictitious Access Bank account to the company’s account at Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB).
Another N38.057 million was approved to be transferred to Ad’mas Digital Technology’s account at Zenith Bank.
Mr. Adigwe also requested approval for the transfer of another N43.685 million from Ad’mas’ account at Access Bank to TD’s account at GTB.
The requests, which followed a similar request by Mr. Igbokwe for the transfer of N38.057 million to his account, No. 1010699686 at Zenith Bank, were approved by Mrs. Ekeh on January 31.
On February 4, 2013, as earlier approved, N115.268 million was transferred from the account to TD’s at GTB, while another N38.057 million was also transfer same day to Ad’mas’ account at Zenith Bank.
By February 28, 2013, the fictitious account was depleted to only N2, 137.33.
To push it into dormancy before abandoning it, the group withdrew N5, 200 for a curious search conducted at the Corporate Affairs Commission bringing the account to a debit balance of N3, 062.67.
Confronting the fraud
Armed with the details and the auditors’ shocking findings at the Ibadan tax office, Mr. Benjamin said he confronted Mr. Igbokwe and Ms. Kama. Both denied knowledge of the dealings.
Citadel Oracle laid a formal complaint at the police special fraud unit in October 2013, and hired Afe Babalola & Co., legal practitioners in January 2014 to write the two individuals, alongside Mr. Ozims and Mrs. Oyebode.
Similar letters were sent to Access Bank. The bank promised to investigate and revert. It never did.
Another letter to the Financial Policy and Regulations Department of the CBN regarding the role of Access Bank, received no response either. The bank also promised to investigate. It did not provide any response.
In his statement to the police after his arrest in 2013 over the scandal, Obilo Onuoha, then a Relationship manager with Access Bank, said Citadel Oracle Concept account was opened by a Board resolution executed by its promoters introduced by Zinox Technologies/Technology Distributions.
“I have not communicated with any of the Citadel directors,” he admitted. “My communication on this account was just once with the signatories on the account and the man that signed as Citadel representative, one Chief Igbokwe.”
In the letter to Mr. Ozims and Mrs. Oyebode, Afe Babalola asked how they became directors of Citadel Oracle and signatories to the Access Bank account.
The letter to Mrs. Ekeh wanted to know why she approved payments from the illegal account, which she knew was opened with a forged Board resolution and other documents.
After the letters were sent, the accused persons proposed a meeting presided by Mr. Babalola, to seek ways of resolving the case.
Mr. Benjamin said at the end of the meeting held at Mr. Babalola’s private residence in Ekiti, the accused persons, through their lawyer, Anthony Okah & Associates, offered N5.7 million as compensation to Citadel Oracle. The amount was rejected.
On February 20, 2014, Mr. Igbokwe wrote to Mr. Benjamin to raise the amount to N10 million “as our veritable olive branch for an enduring peace”, according to details seen by this newspaper.
Mr. Benjamin said the offer was also rejected.
He said his company only demanded a public apology and an undertaking by the suspects to take responsibility for any claim(s) by FIRS, Access bank and any other party against Citadel Oracle in connection with the contract, in future.
On January 22, 2014, Mr. Ozims, in his capacity as group Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, TD Limited, responded to the letter by Afe Babalola & Co. for clarification of his role in the scam.
In the letter, he did not deny his involvement. He said the Board of TD had approved their nomination to represent the company in those capacities, while Mrs. Ekeh was authorised to handle the disbursements from the illegal account.
Mr. Ozims said following a petition by Citadel Oracle to the Special Fraud Unit (SFU) of the police, he and Mrs. Oyebode were arrested in December 2013, and later were granted bail after their statements were collected.
Mr. Ozims described the threat by the law firm to take the matter to court as an attempt to duplicate the punishment for a case already before the SFU, urging them to await the conclusion of investigations.
The matter lingered for years, with the police in Lagos and Abuja refusing to charge the suspects to court.
Mr. Benjamin said he was instead prodded by the police investigating team to accept financial offers by Mr. Igbokwe.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Zinox Technologies for comments, its head, Corporate Communications, Gideon Ayogu, dismissed the allegations linking his company as false and cheap blackmail.
Mr. Ayogu promised to send a vigorous response later. Weeks after that promise, his response was still being awaited till press time.
However, Mr. Ekeh, in a lengthy response to this newspaper’s inquiries, denied any role in the case.
“The man is claiming that TD did not deliver computers to FIRS,” he said. “They (EFCC) have been to FIRS and found every equipment with serial numbers. But, he said they used his company to defraud government. That is not true. He wants to destroy me.
“He wanted me to give him money. I will not do it. Zinox has never done business with the man. FIRS confirmed they gave business to that company, and the company brought the papers to us through his agent. We have several companies we help like that.
He agreed Mr. Igbokwe has been a business partner/distributor to TD for over 15 years, but denied knowledge of the fictitious account at Access bank where the payment was lodged by FIRS.
However, bank documents seen by this newspaper showed transfers of monies between FIRS account at the CBN and the fake account as well as approvals by top officials of Zinox Technologies for disbursements from the account to Zinox banks accounts and those of the suspects.
Police Petitioner turns accused
Following former IGP Arase’s advice against the police charging the suspects to court, Mr. Benjamin’s lawyers, Enyinnaya Uwaezuoke, on June 5, 2015 accused the IGP of attempting to shield the accused from prosecution.
He issued a 21-day ultimatum for the IGP to transfer the case file to the Director of Public Prosecution, Federal Ministry of Justice, for the prosecution of the suspects.
After the encounter, the police wrote the attorney general of the federation to say the accused had already been arraigned at a Lagos High Court.
Curiously, on June 16, 2016, three days before the end of IGP Arase’s tenure, the police charged Mr. Benjamin to court, accusing him of providing false information in his petition against the accused.
The former IGP said his allegation in the petition of July 3, 2014 about the Board Resolution Citadel Oracle company used in opening the fake account in Access bank through which the FIRS paid for the contract was false.
On July 2, 2016, Mr. Benjamin was arraigned before the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Apo, Abuja on a one-count charge of “false petitioning” IGP Arase with intention of misleading him over a case of identity theft, impersonation and criminal conversion of contracts against the accused.
Mr. Benjamin was accused of falsely alleging the plaintiffs, namely Mr. Igbokwe, Ms.Kama, Mrs.Oyebode, Mr. Ozims, Ad’mas Digital Technologies Limited, Pirovics Engineering Services Limited, Technology Distributions Limited and Zinox Telecommunications Limited, conspired to forge his signature on a fake Board resolution of his company to open an account at Access bank.
He pleaded not guilty and was granted bail by Justice Peter Kekemeke in the sum of N200, 000. The case was adjourned to October 6, 2016 for hearing.
The EFCC took over the investigations after a petition went to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.