The President of the Nigeria Bar Association, Paul Usoro (SAN), pleaded not guilty at a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos to charges of N1.4bn fraud preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
He was subsequently admitted to N250m bail and one surety in like sum.
EFCC preferred 10 counts against the accused, which is pending before Justice Muslim Hassan.
Also named in the charge is the incumbent governor of Akwa Ibom State, Emmanuel Udom, who is described in the charge as being “currently constitutionally immune from prosecution.”
Others charged are: Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Finance, Nsikan Nkan; Accountant-General of Akwa Ibom State, Mfon Udomah; Akwa Ibom State Attorney-General, Uwemedimo Nwoko and Margaret Ukpe.
The aforementioned accused persons are said to be “at large.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo appeared for the EFCC, while Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) appeared with six other senior advocates for Usoro.
Oyedepo then informed the court that the anti-graft agency had successfully served the criminal charge on the accused on December 10, and sought leave of court for the plea of accused to be taken.
In response, Olanipekun confirmed service of the charge on the NBA President, but hinted the court that after it had directed that the accused be served with the charge at the last adjourned date, the accused was asked to report to the Commission’s office for service.
He said that there, at the Commission’s office, Usoro was kept for two hours before the charge was handed to him, while he acknowledged same, adding that he was kept at the EFCC for another two hours.
He told the court that the EFCC had earlier informed the accused that he will be detained, but eventually let him go.
Olanipekun then informed the court that the team of defence counsel has been informed that there is already a letter written to the chief judge of the court, seeking a transfer of the case to Uyo, Abuja, or any other jurisdiction of the court, apart from him (Justice Hassan).
Based on parity of reasoning and citing diverse judicial and statutory authorities, Olanipekun urged the court to await the decision of the CJ, rather than proceeding with arraignment.
In response, the prosecutor argued that the matter was adjourned until Tuesday (today) for arraignment of the accused, adding that there is nothing before the court that can be construed as setting aside that purpose.
Referring to provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), Oyedepo said that objections can only be raised after the plea of the accused had been taken.
According to him, Section 9 governs the place of trial and enquiry, and requires that the charge be filed in the jurisdiction where the alleged offence took place.
He argued that sufficient facts which would lead to a transfer of the case to Uyo or Abuja were not available.
Besides, he argued, that apart from the letter to the CJ, there was no formal application before the court seeking a recuse, adding that the prosecution was entitled to join issues on same.
He urged the court to proceed with arraignment.
In a bench ruling, Justice Hassan held: “I have listened vehemently to the submissions of counsel, and I have also read the letter written to the CJ.
“The issue in view is narrowed down to whether the defendant can take his plea in the circumstance.”
The court held that although it is not in dispute that the CJ reserved the right to transfer cases, the instant case was already assigned to his court.
He added that it is a rule that even where such application for transfer exists, the trial judge should continue with hearing of the case, pending any contrary decision.
The court, consequently, called on the accused to take his plea on the charge.
Usoro pleaded not guilty to the charges.
After his plea, Olanipekun moved a bail application on behalf of the accused, urging the court to admit him to bail on liberal terms of self recognizance as President of the NBA.
Besides, he added, the passport of the accused must be deposited with the court as a measure, adding that he will apply for same whenever the need arises.
The prosecutor did not oppose the application, but left same at the discretion of the court.
However, the court admitted Usoro to bail in the sum of N250m, with one surety in like sum.
The court added that the surety must be owner of a landed property within the court’s jurisdiction, or a civil servant not lower than the rank of a director in the Federal or state civil service.
The court ordered that the accused’s passport also be deposited with the court’s registry which will be verified if genuine.
The court then ordered that Usoro be handed over to a counsel of the Inner Bar, Mr. E.B. Effiong (SAN), pending the perfection of his bail terms.
He adjourned the case until February 5, March 5, and March 6, 2019 for trial.
In the charge marked FHC/418c/18, the EFCC alleged that the accused committed the offence on May 14, 2016.
The Commission alleged that Usoro conspired with others to commit the offence within the jurisdiction of the court.
He was alleged to have conspired to convert the sum of N1.4bn, property of Akwa Ibom Government, which sum they reasonably ought to have known formed part of the proceeds of an unlawful activity.
The prosecution said that the unlawful activity include criminal breach of trust, which contravenes the provisions of sections 15 (2), 15(3), and 18 (A) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011