A 45-year-old resident of Lekki in Lagos, Mr Abidemi Rufai, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in the United States, authorities have said, Rufai who has been in custody since he was apprehended at New York’s JFK airport in May 2021, was the Special Assistant to Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State, at the time of his arrest.
Days after the report of his arrest emerged, Governor Abiodun suspended Rufai from office to answer for the charges against him.
About a year later, Rufai pleaded guilty to using stolen identities to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic-related unemployment benefits during his arraignment at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, U.S. Attorney Nick Brown announced.
According to the plea agreement, since 2017, Rufai unlawfully obtained the personal identifying information of more than 20,000 Americans to submit more than $2 million in claims for federally funded benefits under a variety of relief programmes while the various agencies involved paid out more than $600,000.
“The largest amount of fraud was committed against the Washington State Employment Security Department, which paid out $350,763 in fraudulent pandemic unemployment claims to accounts controlled by Rufai,” said a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. “Rufai also submitted fraudulent pandemic unemployment claims in at least 17 other states.
“Rufai also defrauded the Small Business Administration (SBA) by attempting to obtain Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April 8, 2020, and June 26, 2020, he submitted 19 fraudulent EIDL applications. SBA paid out $10,000 based on the applications.”
The U.S. authorities said Rufai attempted to obtain more than $1.7 million in IRS tax refunds by submitting 675 false claims between 2017 and 2020 out of which IRS paid out $90,877.
It added that the defendant’s efforts to enrich himself with false disaster claims did not start with COVID-19 as he had submitted 49 disaster relief claims connected to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in September and October 2017.
Rufai was also said to have filed $24,500 in false claims and was paid on 13 claims, totalling $6,500.
“Rufai has agreed to pay full restitution to the defrauded agencies,” the statement added. “Wire fraud in relation to a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Aggravated identity theft is punishable by two years in prison to follow any prison term imposed on another charge.
“Prosecutors have agreed to recommend no more than 71 months in prison. The recommendation is not binding on U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle, who will determine the appropriate sentence on August 15, 2022, after considering the sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.”
According to authorities, the case was investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Department of Labour Office of Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, and the United States Small Business Administration Office of the Inspector General, while the Washington Employment Security Department is cooperating in the investigation.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Cindy Chang of the Western District of Washington.