Although money laundering cases against him show that Lucky Igbinedion may have stolen several millions of dollar from the treasury of Edo State during the eight years he was governors, details from a court case he instituted against Venezuelan state owned oil company, Petroleos De Venezuela S.A (PDVSA) and alleged conman, Fransisco Gonzalez, suggest that the scam may have caused serious damage to his finances.
In 2007 the ex-governor lost over N3 billion to Venezuelan fraudsters in a botched fuel import deal. He has since instituted a $600 million suit against PDVSA and Mr. Gonzalez in a U.S. District Court in New York.
Court documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that two Manhattan-based law firms previously contracted by Igbinedion’s company, Skanga Energy and Marine limited, have withdrawn from the case over non-payment of their retainer.
One of them, a personal injury law firm, Robert Dunne LLC, quit because of the inability of Mr. Igbinedion’s Skanga to pay fee as low as $3,800.00 (N627,000).
“Plaintiff has failed and refused to pay Dunne Firm fees reasonably earned for legal services rendered, although demand for such payment has been made several times,” an affidavit informing the court of its decision to withdraw for the case read.
The other law firm, Robinson Brog Leinwand Greene Genovese & Gluck P.C, also complained that efforts to establish direct communication with Skanga had been difficult as the company preferred to be reached through a Mississippi-based Nigerian owned “two lawyer” (husband and wife) law firm, Salu & Salu.
David Burger, a lawyer with the law firm of Robinson Brog, swore, amongst other reasons, in an affidavit that the ability of his law firm to represent Skanga is “being severely impeded” by “the continued inability of the my firm to have any adequate direct communication with Skanga, with delayed and inadequate communications only relayed through a two lawyer firm Located in Mississippi.”
According to David Burger, Skanga owes his law firm a total of $114,000 (N18,810,000) in unpaid fee.
Olufemi Salu, of Salu & Salu, also admitted to the court that the scam has rendered Mr. Igbinedion and his businesses insolvent. In fact, on 23 August 2013, it filed a motion asking the court to compel PDVSA to pay for the travel expenses and lodging of its estranged attorney, Mr Dunne, for the deposition of its own officials in Lagos.
“The action of PDVSA, subject matter of this lawsuit, crippled the business of Plaintiff. Plaintiff currently struggles to pay its attorneys. Court should take judicial notice that Plaintiff’s previous attorneys withdrew their representation over dispute regarding attorneys’ fees. Consequently, Plaintiff is unable to afford deposition scheduled in Nigeria,” he argued.
Now Igbinedion is stuck with Mr. Salu, a lawyer based in Mississippi-Tennessee. Though he claimed to have represented major international corporations like “Texaco, Mobil Oil, Chase Manhattan Bank, ship owners, and foreign governments”, his areas of expertise are personal injury, car accidents and fatal car accidents.
Pitching Mr. Salu against lawyers from upscale law firm like Foley Hoag LLP looks like a rigged contest. Foley Hoag is based in Boston, Massachusetts, with offices in Washington DC and Paris. Ranked number six in the “20 Best Law Firms To Work For In The Nation”, by U.S. company rating organization, Vault, Foley Hoag was involved in Boston’s early civil rights struggle and won the 1970 lawsuit that brought desegregation to Boston public schools. In 2008, the firm successfully represented the government of Bolivia in the dispute over the nationalisation of telecom company, Entel.
This mismatch was apparent as Mr. Salu was literally taken to school by Lawrence Martin, a top partner from Foley Hoag’s Washington office. Mr Salu did not help his case as he made contradictory statements and his transcript appeared to have been written in a hurry.
In one utterly ridiculous instance, Mr. Salu, despite being presented with Skanga’s Statement of Annual Returns 2006-2008 certified as true by the Corporate Affairs Commission and the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, argued that Skanga directors weren’t aware that such filling has been made.
Clearly stated in the documents were the shareholders of Skanga and the number of shares they owned, yet Mr. Salu said, “Skanga’s Directors were not aware of these filings.”
Further, in a desperate attempt to discredit the defendant, Mr. Salu unwittingly revealed that Skanga might have been consistently submitting false statements of return to the CAC. He argued that the court should disregard Skanga’s CAC certified Statement of Returns presented by the defendant on the ground that the accounting firm employed by Skanga to audit its account, Dynamic Premier, has no listed address and “is not related to any professional entity as it is customary in Nigeria and the rest of the world.”
Mr. Salu did not reply written questions PREMIUM TIMES sent to him via email about his involvement in the case. He also did not return calls made to his office phone number.
String of misfortunes
The Venezuelan affair is one in the series of financial losses the mustachios ex-governor has suffered since he left office. A business stint gone awry in South Africa saw him losing millions of dollars. According to news reports, After the death of his South African partner in a joint venture, Mr. Igbinedion tried but failed to reclaim his investment in the business, which he did through his late partner to avoid South African regulators on the lookout for investors with dirty money.
Mr. Igbinedion then moved his business base to Sierra Leone where Skanga became one of the leading fishing companies in the country. It is alleged that Mr. Igbinedion also owns some of the most expensive real estates in the country. However, Sierra Leonean media reports suggest that Skanga may also be going through a difficult phase in the West African country. There was a report about violent protests against the company by dissatisfied youth.
The loss of over N3 billion to the fraudster in the oil import deal also appears to have sounded the death knell of Skanga operations in Nigeria. When PREMIUM TIMES visited Skanga’s official address in upscale Victoria Island, the premises had been overtaken by weeds and looked desolate. In fact, the Lagos State government has sealed the property for defaulting on land use tax and has placed a notice for an order to sell the property.
Intrigues and lies
True to the observation of Skanga’s first law firm, Robinson Brog, the company has approached the lawsuit in manner that left more to be desired. The firm has done everything to shield important persons involved in the case from testifying. In utter disregard of facts contained in officially verified documents, it has lied about the ownership of the company, and under curious circumstances, has alleged losing certain vital documents requested by defense counsels.
It seems Skanga’s approach to pursuing the lawsuit is to tell lies and which it further attempts to cover up by more lies.
During his deposition, which was conducted via Skype, Mr Igbinedion said he could not remember when Skanga was established. He also denied ever holding any shares in Skanga. But certified copies of Skanga’s Statement of Annual Returns show that Mr. Igbinedion was the principal shareholder of Skanga with 12 million shares.
Mr. Igbinedion also lied about his money laundering conviction. He said he was convicted for what he termed “political negligence.” He also lied that the Federal government seized none of his properties.
Mr. Salu further described Mr Igbinedion’s money laundering trial and conviction as “a corrupt political inquisition that is fairly common in Nigerian politics.”
“After he served his two terms in office and left office, political opponents instituted kangaroo criminal proceedings against him for ‘neglect’ in listing one of his personal accounts that had been dormant for a while. His fine was less than $20,000, that is, the amount in the account at the time,” he said.
Curiously, six years after it first instituted the lawsuit, Skanga has not served Arevenca and Mr González a notice of the suit and in fact has not made any effort to serve them, according to court documents.
Skanga also refused to share the record of its correspondence with Arevenca when requested by PDVSA lawyers. Managing Director of Skanga, Christian Imoukhuede claimed his Yahoo email account was hacked and he lost access to it. He said he lost the mails in his inbox, sent, trash and all his contacts after Yahoo restored the email. However, He said the emails in his inbox was “partially restored” after he changed his browser from Mozilla Firefox to Internet Explorer.
A computer scientist, Alexander Gessen, employed by PDVSA to do a forensic analysis of Mr. Imoukhuede’s laptop said his account of how he lost the emails was not “credible.”
“Merely switching internet browser is not an industry recognized method of recovering deleted emails. Nor does it offer plausible explanation why inbox items would be restored, but sent items would not be. I am not aware of any way in which merely switching Internet browsers would result in recovery of deleted emails,” he said.
Just like it did with Bright Igbinedion, Skanga also did everything possible to shield another director, Adebayo Osho from appearing as witnesses. It particularly contested the deposition of Mr. Osho who was its Nigerian lawyer and a listed shareholder of the company with 2.5 million shares. Mr. Osho is the proprietor of the law firm, Adebayo Osho and Company, Skanga’s lawyers objected to the deposition of Mr. Osho on the ground that he was the company lawyer and might break the client-lawyer confidentiality during deposition.
Efforts by PREMIUM TIMES to interview Mr. Osho were unsuccessful. A lawyer who has an office at the same address as him said he vacated his office three years ago without leaving his new contact address. All the contact phone numbers on his website were also not functional