Ex-Nigerian official gets 5 years for pandemic fraud in US

SEATTLE (AP) — A former Nigerian government official was sentenced Monday to five years in prison for stealing more than $500,000 in pandemic relief supplies in the United States.

SEATTLE (AP) — A former Nigerian government official was sentenced Monday to five years in prison for stealing more than $500,000 in pandemic relief supplies in the United States.

Abidemi Rufai was wearing a $10,000 watch and a $35,000 gold chain when he was arrested at New York’s JFK International Airport in May 2021 while en route to Nigeria.

Rufai pleaded guilty in May to charges of fraud and aggravated identity theft charges in US District Court in Tacoma, Wash., and Judge Benjamin Settle returned the verdict Monday. The judge also ordered Rufai to pay more than $600,000 in damages.

Prosecutors said the 45-year-old has a history of defrauding the US government, including using stolen identities to apply for emergency relief following hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

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“When disaster struck, so did Mr. Rufai,” Seattle US Attorney Nick Brown said in a press release. “Whether it was hurricane disaster relief, small business loans, or COVID unemployment benefits, he stole aid that should have gone to disaster victims across the United States.”

Such fraud was rampant in pandemic relief programs, according to the US Department of Labor’s inspector general, who said last week that $45.6 billion in unemployment insurance may not have been properly paid out from March 2020 to April 2022.

The Justice Department last week indicted dozens of people in Minnesota in connection with a $250 million fraud scheme that exploited a state-funded child feeding program during the pandemic.

Rufai, from Lekki, Nigeria, has a master’s degree and is politically connected in his home country, prosecutors said. He had allegedly run a sports betting company since 2016, his finances were opaque and his main source of income appeared to be cheating the US government.

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Known as a prolific political fundraiser, he unsuccessfully ran for Nigeria’s National Assembly in 2019, Assistant US Attorneys Cindy Chang and Seth Wilkinson wrote in a sentencing memo.

Between April and October 2020, he used a cache of stolen identities — investigators found more than 20,000 of them with dates of birth and social security numbers in one of his email accounts — to apply for pandemic-related benefits. He applied to employment agencies in at least nine states, including Washington’s Employment Security Department, on behalf of at least 224 Americans.

Immediately upon his return to Nigeria in August 2020, Rufai was appointed Special Advisor to the Governor of Nigeria’s Ogun State. He was featured in news magazines, photographed in a luxury Mercedes SUV he bought with stolen funds and shipped to Nigeria.

Rufai later returned to the US and was arrested on May 15, 2021, just a day after prosecutors filed an amended charge against him, while attempting to leave the country on a business-class flight. In recorded phone calls from prison, he spoke about moving a large sum of money immediately after his arrest, prosecutors said.

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Rufai apologized in a letter to the court, saying, “My actions are outrageous and inexcusable.” He blamed them on a gambling addiction and the pressure to care for his wife and children.

“Your Honor, I am now a rehabilitated man ready to live a crime free life and also be a responsible man to my family and my community as a whole,” he wrote.

The defense sought a 2.5-year sentence, citing letters from supporters who wrote that Rufai had a charitable foundation that helps pay for tuition for elementary school students. The Justice Department called for nearly six years and said a longer period was necessary in part to deter others who might commit similar crimes.

Gene Johnson (), The Associated Press