|Jefferson probe leads to accusations against Nigerian vice president|
By Bruce Alpert and Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON — Nigerian investigators pursuing a U.S. Department of Justice request to look at dealings between U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and leaders of the Western African nation have accused Nigeria Vice President Atiku Abubakar of diverting millions of dollars of public finds into private accounts.
Abubakar through aides denied the allegations Thursday, which are not directly connected to the U.S. probe of Jefferson, D-New Orleans.
Abubakar became publicly linked to the Jefferson investigation in August 2005, when FBI agents raided the vice president’s Maryland home at the same time they were searching Jefferson’s residences in Washington and New Orleans.
In an affidavit, the FBI said it expected to find $100,000 in marked bills that Jefferson had allegedly delivered to the vice president. The agents instead reported finding $90,000 of the cash jammed into the freezer of Jefferson’s Washington home. The remaining $10,000 was accounted for — half of it was given as a loan to a Jefferson staffer and the rest returned to the government by the congressman’s lawyers.
An FBI transcript of secretly recorded conversations between Jefferson and a cooperating witness, quotes the congressman as saying that bribes would have to paid to the vice president to help the Kentucky firm iGate Inc. win telecommunications contracts in Nigeria.
Jefferson and Abubakar both have denied that any bribes were paid. Jefferson has not been charged and has said he did nothing wrong.
Abubakar’s supporters said the latest allegations are motivated by Nigerian politics. Abubakar and President Olusegun Obasanjo have been feuding for months, with the vice president now a candidate to succeed Obasanjo. Abubakar was one of the leaders of a successful effort to block Obasanjo from amending Nigeria’s constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
Obasanjo is expected to refer the allegations in the investigative report by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to the Nigerian senate for impeachment proceedings against Abubakar.
According to a copy of the report published in Nigeria’s This Day newspaper, the commission was initially asked to investigate links to Jefferson, his family members and iGate Inc., which was attempting to market the company’s copper wire broadband technology to top Nigerian political and business leaders, including the vice president.
Vernon Jackson, 54, the CEO of iGate Inc., has pleaded guilty to funneling $400,000 to the ANJ Group, a company headed by Jefferson’s wife and children. Jackson, who is scheduled to be sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Virginia, has said the payments were in exchange for Jefferson’s help in trying to land deals in Africa.
The major finding by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is that Abubakar funneled money from the government’s Petroleum Technology Development Fund to private accounts. The vice president said he simply sent the proceeds to interest-bearing accounts until the projects that the money was intended to pay for were ready to proceed.
Although most of the lengthy report centers on the diversion of petroleum funds, there are some references that touch on the Jefferson investigation.
For example, the report recounts an interview with Aliyu Maigari, identified as the protocol liaison officer for the vice president. According to the commission account, Maigari said at 3 a.m., on July 31, 2005, he received a visit at a suburban Washington, D.C., hotel from a legislative assistant to Jefferson who handed him a sealed envelope marked confidential with “Capitol Hill — USA Congress” written on it. Maigari said he gave the letter to another aide for delivery to the vice president later that morning.
The envelope was delivered one day after the FBI says it caught Jefferson on video taking a briefcase with the $100,000 in $100 bills marked by the FBI from Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, who was acting a government informant. The Nigerian commission doesn’t say what was in the sealed envelope and presumably doesn’t know.
Edward Weidenfeld, the vice president’s Washington lawyer, repeated the vice president’s earlier statements that the only thing Abubakar ever received from Jefferson were letters promoting the iGate telecommunications deal.
Another commission finding reports on an interview with Maureen Edu, a Nigerian native who worked for the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
At Jefferson’s request, Edu told the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, that she had arranged and attended a meeting in 2003 with other bank officials that included the congressman and Jackson. She said a loan application on behalf of iGate was discussed.
In the first few months of 2004, she told the commission, that Otunba Fasawe, chairman of Nigeria-based NDTV, which was expected to help finance the iGate deal, sent her a cash gift of $100,000. Edu, who worked under the name Maureen Scurry while an employee at the Export-Import Bank, testified that Fasawe was like a father to her, and that she had made several appeals to him for financial assistance to help pay bills resulting from a cancer diagnosis for her brother.
Phil Cogan, spokesman for the Export-Import Bank confirmed that a woman named Maureen Scurry worked for the bank from 2000 to 2004. He declined comment on the reported $100,000 gift to the employee, but said that the bank is cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department investigation.
No loan was ever applied for or granted by the Export-Import Bank for the iGate project, he said.
(Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or at (202) 383-7861. Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 383-7817.)