Emeka Ugwuonye, a U.S.-based Nigerian lawyer, resident in the state of Maryland, was a big loser today at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia which entered a default judgment against his law firm, ECU Associates, ordering it to refund the controversial $1.55 million belonging to the Nigerian government.
The court entered the judgment after the firm failed to defend the case “despite multiple opportunities to do so”.
In a judgment Tuesday, Judge Barbara J. Rothstein, granted the Nigerian embassy’s prayers that Mr. Ugwuonye’s firm be made to refund $1.55million it stole from the Nigerian government.
The court also asked the embassy to provide sufficient information that would enable it to determine, against Mr. Ugwuonye’s firm, an appropriate damages amount for pre- and post-judgment interest on the money, punitive damages and costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES after the judgment, the Nigerian ambassador to the United States, Adebowale Adefuye, described the judgment as a vindication of his stand that Mr. Ugwuonye and his company had defrauded the Nigerian people.
“This guy has played all manner of tricks to scare us away from trying him for fraud,” Mr. Adefuye said. “He wrote all kinds of lies to smear my character and that of the embassy. He fought us but we remained firm. Now his days of reckoning have come and this is a message to people like him that the war against corruption is on course and that we will fight corrupt elements no matter whose ox is gored. The money he took with recklessness and impunity belongs to the Nigerian people and I can’t be here and not recover it.”
Mr. Adefuye said he has now requested the embassy’s lawyers to compute the interests that should accrue to the amount and the damages and attorneys’ fee Mr. Ugwuonye’s firm should pay to the embassy.
Mr. Ugwuonye could not be reached for comments Tuesday. He did not answer calls to his telephone and is yet to respond to an email sent to him.
Mr. Ugwuonye’s current legal troubles began in 2009 when New York-based SaharaReporters reported an allegedly shady real estate transactions involving the Nigerian embassy, questioning why the properties were auctioned off at giveaway prices with the help of a lawyer with “professional baggage”.
The publication claimed Mr. Ugwuonye had diverted $1.55million from the tax refunds meant for the embassy to his personal use, even as the controversial attorney claimed the cheque was being cleared.
Omoyele Sowore, the founder of SaharaReporters, told PREMIUM TIMES he monitored the real estate transactions long before Mr. Ugwuonye was brought on board. He added that, as soon as he saw that Mr. Ugwuonye had converted the monies meant for the embassy, he contacted the attorney while he was traveling in Nigeria.
According to Mr. Sowore, Mr. Ugwuonye gave him a startling response, alleging that Nigerian officials, including then Foreign Minister, Ojo Madueke, planned to steal the proceeds of the real estate transactions amounting to $25 million – and as such he, the attorney, had decided to help himself to a small fraction of the amount. He promised Mr. Sowore that he would give him a full account of what transpired whenever he arrived back in the U.S.
On arrival in the U.S., Mr. Ugwuonye reportedly telephoned Mr. Sowore to explain that he was expecting payments for his work on the Abiola vs. Abubakar case. He then claimed that he was withholding the $1.55 million tax refund to the embassy in lieu of outstanding fees owed him by the Nigerian government.
Mr. Sowore said he was astonished at how the lawyer’s story had changed. Saharareporters published its report on the real estate transactions and Mr. Ugwuonye’s decision to keep more than a million and a half dollars that was supposed to go to his client, the Nigerian embassy.
The website’s report came amidst a public spat between the then Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., General Rotimi Oluwole (rtd.), and Mr. Madueke. The ambassador was later recalled by then President Musa Yar’Adua.
The firing of Ambassador Rotimi, who had commenced legal proceedings to have Mr. Ugwuonye disbarred for stealing the embassy’s tax refund, seemed to embolden the attorney. Mr. Ugwuonye filed a rash of lawsuits against some targets for questioning his action on the tax refund. Among those he sued were the publisher of SaharaReporters, the domain name shield for SaharaReporters, Domainbyproxy, and Bolaji Aluko, then a professor of engineering at Howard University.
The U.S.-based attorney later dropped his suit against Domainbyproxy after reportedly securing the company’s assurance that it would block any registration renewals by Saharareporters.
In March 2009, Mr. Ugwuonye commenced lawsuits claiming slander, libel and invasion of privacy against Mr. Sowore, Ambassador Oluwole Rotimi, and Mr. Aluko before a U.S. Federal District Court. The court later dismissed the case against Mr. Rotimi because of Mr. Ugwuonye’s inability to serve court summons on the ambassador. The case against Mr. Aluko was also dismissed, with the presiding judge fining Mr. Ugwuonye $750 for filing the case at the federal district court when he ought to have used the state court. Mr. Ugwuonye backed down and voluntarily withdrew his suit against Mr. Aluko at the U.S. District Court.
The judge then let Mr. Ugwuonye’s case against Sowore/Saharareporters proceed despite motions filed by defence lawyers challenging the jurisdiction of the court. Mr. Ugwuonye claimed he had evidence that Mr. Sowore, Mr. Aluko and Mr. Rotimi met to conspire against him.
In the meantime, Mr. Ugwuonye filed another case against Mr. Aluko at the Montgomery Circuit Court, including another U.S-based Nigerian, Valentine Ojo, as defendant. Mr. Ojo, who has a reputation on listservs for being blunt, had stated that Mr. Ugwuonye stole the embassy’s funds.
While Mr. Aluko defended his case diligently, Mr. Ojo failed to show up in court. The Montgomery court dismissed the case against Mr. Aluko, ruling that Mr. Ugwuonye was a public figure and could not request damages on libel and slander claims based on the comments made by the defendant. An appeal by Mr. Ugwuonye at the state high court was also thrown out because he failed to file his appeal statements within the stipulated time.
Despite the collapse of the case against Mr. Aluko, now the vice chancellor of a federal university in Otuoke, in Nigeria’s Bayelsa State, the judge issued a default judgment in the amount of $300,000 against Valentine Ojo for failure to defend his case.
PREMIUM TIMES learned that with Ambassador Rotimi recalled, Mr. Ugwuonye was able to reestablish ties with some officials of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC, with one even allegedly helping to hide a letter emanating from the DC bar asking for more information about Mr. Ugwuonye’s seizure of embassy funds.
Mr. Ugwuonye erroneously thought that the firing of Ambassador Rotimi signaled the end of his troubles. Shortly after Mr. Rotimi was relieved of his appointment, the controversial attorney stated in U.S. court documents that his disagreement with the Nigerian embassy over fees was being resolved.
But Mr. Ugwuonye’s calculation that he would receive help from some embassy officials collapsed with the appointment of Mr. Adefuye as the new ambassador. Mr. Adefuye reportedly contacted Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate Mr. Ugwuonye’s reported confiscation of the embassy’s tax refund.
In addition, Mr. Adefuye, a former professor, filed a professional misconduct case against Mr. Ugwuonye with the Attorney Grievances Commission in Maryland. Mr. Ugwuonye reportedly ignored the summons, which was filed by lawyers at the firm of Patton Boggs. But Nigerian security officials arrested Mr. Ugwuonye in February 2011 during his trip to Nigeria. After detaining him for several days, the EFCC charged him to court for breach of trust.
While the lawyer was in detention, another former client of his, Sola Adeeyo, reported to the EFCC that Mr. Ugwuonye had stolen $94,000 of funds he had asked him to retrieve from a U.S. bank.
During his detention, Mr. Ugwuonye sent out emails portraying himself a victim of high-handedness by Nigerian officials. On one occasion, he filed a counter claim against the Nigerian embassy from detention. He also filed a hand-written brief from detention in his case against Saharareporters, requesting that the judge allow the case to continue. The judge obliged, wait-listing the case until Mr. Ugwuonye was able to return to the US.
On his return from Nigerian, he resumed his case against SaharaReporters. He also made futile attempts to block the website from reporting on his other legal entanglements in Nigeria and the US. He even wrote a letter to Mr. Sowore’s lawyers threatening to file fresh lawsuits if Saharareporters did not stop publishing other reports on his other legal woes. However, the judge in the matter warned him against such acts, ruling that publication could not be stopped.
Between 2010 and 2013, the Nigerian Embassy’s new leadership moved aggressively to ensure that Mr. Ugwuonye refunds the money he unlawfully took from the embassy. Not only was a bar complaint filed against him, but a lawsuit directly accused Mr. Ugwuonye of stealing the embassy’s funds.
The embassy’s lawyers subpoenaed bank records that revealed Mr. Ugwuonye withdrew $500,000 from the tax refund in one day even as he told the embassy to wait for payment. The embassy also sued Mr. Ugwuonye’s alleged accomplice, Bruce Fein.
As the case against him proceeded, Mr. Ugwuonye procured an email he claimed was sent by Ambassador Adefuye. The email allegedly complained that Mr. Ugwuonye was avoiding responding to the embassy’s lawsuit in Washington, DC demanding that he surrender the real estate tax refund. Armed with the email and some photographs he took with a cell phone whilst exercising during his EFCC detention, he slammed a lawsuit against Ambassador Adefuye, former EFCC chairperson, Farida Waziri, current EFCC chair, Ibrahim Lamorde, former EFCC spokesperson, Femi Babafemi, and an EFCC lawyer, Festus Keyamo.
However, a U.S. District judge rejected the mode of service, even questioning Mr. Ugwuonye’s competence as a lawyer. Unable to address the deficiencies in his alleged mode of serving the summons, Mr. Ugwuonye withdrew his civil lawsuit that claimed torture and illegal detention by Nigerian authorities.
Just before then, his lawsuit against SaharaReporters and Mr. Sowore was also dismissed. In an elaborate opinion, the presiding judge ruled that Mr. Ugwuonye’s entire case lacked merit. The judge went as far as telling the plaintiff that the main points reported by SaharaReporters were substantially true, and that his claim of being slandered was unfounded.
Mr. Ugwuonye proceeded to appeal the judge’s ruling. However, his appeal too was dismissed when he failed to file his appeal statements after a 15-day ultimatum was given to him on March 21, 2013. On April 10, the U.S. Court of Appeal of the Fourth Circuit ruled that the case failed since the plaintiff, Mr. Ugwuonye, failed to prosecute the appeal.
The failure of his appeal appears to be only a small part of Mr. Ugwuonye’s legal headache. The case filed against him by the Nigerian Embassy to retrieve the $1.55 million (N234 million) he illegally kept from the embassy’s real estate transactions progressed.
On March 8, 2013, the judge in the case ordered Mr. Ugwuonye to stop defending his law firm, ECU Associates, in the case, insisting that he retain a separate lawyer to handle his firm’s defense. Mr. Ugwuonye has failed to comply with the order.
In a more serious development, Mr. Ugwuonye failed to show up on April 11, 2013 for a court-mandated deposition by lawyers at the Washington, DC firm of Patton Boggs, which is representing the Nigerian embassy.
In Nigeria, Mr. Ugwuonye continues to face two criminal cases being prosecuted by the EFCC. One case relates to breach of trust in stealing funds belonging to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC. The second case pertains to his refusal to declare his assets to the anti-corruption agency.
A third case in Nigeria, related to how Mr. Ugwuonye allegedly stole $94,000 belonging to Sola Adeeyo, a former client, is currently on appeal by the EFCC. A Lagos High Court had earlier dismissed the case.
Mr. Ugwuonye studied law at the University of Benin and then earned a Masters at Harvard. He came to limelight when he defended former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, in a class action suit filed by human rights activists and members of the late M.K.O. Abiola’s family, led by daughter Hafsat Abiola.
The case lasted seven years before it was eventually settled in 2009 by the Umaru Yar’Adua regime. In the settlement, the Nigerian Government paid millions of dollars to the plaintiffs. A breakdown of the pay schedule seen by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that Mr. Ugwuonye also received the equivalent of the amount of money paid to the victims and their lawyer in the final settlement.
But before the settlement of the case, Mr. Ugwuonye had bagged other lucrative briefs from the Nigerian embassy in Washington, DC.
When President Obasanjo decided to sell off properties of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC, San Francisco and New York, Mr. Ugwuonye was brought in to serve as attorney several months after the process had already begun and was running smoothly.
The embassy would end up paying him millions of dollars for “legal services” rendered in the real estate deal, legal documents show.
Yet, while Mr. Ugwuonye was acting on behalf of the Nigerian embassy, his license to practice law had been suspended and the State of Maryland constantly forfeited his companies for failure to pay tax.