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CEO of Air Peace indicted for bank fraud and money laundering in US

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The CEO of Nigerian private airline, Air Peace has been indicted for bank fraud and money laundering in the United States (US).

A press release issued Friday November 22, 2019 by the Department of Justice, US Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Georgia, says Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, the Chairman, CEO, and founder of Air Peace, was charged with bank fraud and money laundering for moving more than $20 million from Nigeria through US bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes.

The airline’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, has also been charged with bank fraud and committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme, the release said. The two would appear in court to defend the charges against them.

Onyema, 56, of Lagos, Nigeria, and Eghagha, 37, also of Lagos, Nigeria, were indicted on November 19, 2019, on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud, and three counts of credit application fraud.  Additionally, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, and Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft, the release said.

Air Peace which started operations in Nigeria in 2014 and operated domestic flights in that country, started its Lagos to Accra route on February 16, 2017, making the route its first outside Nigeria and within West Africa. The airline has since added Abuja to Accra to its routes.

According to US Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak , the indictment, and other information presented in court states that Onyema, a Nigerian citizen and businessman, is the founder and Chairman of several organizations that purport to promote peace across Nigeria, including the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, and All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited.

It states further that beginning in 2010, Onyema began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts.  Between 2010 and 2018, over $44.9 million was allegedly transferred into his Atlanta-based accounts from foreign sources.

According to the documents, in years following the founding of Air Peace, Onyema traveled to the United States and purchased multiple airplanes for the airline. However, over $3 million of the funds used to purchase the aircraft allegedly came from bank accounts for Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited, and Every Child Limited, it added.

The indictment documents noted that beginning in approximately May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema.

“The letters of credit were purportedly to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace.  The letters were supported by documents such as purchase agreements, bills of sale, and appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia,” the documents said.

But officials, later found that the supporting documents were fake — Springfield Aviation Company LLC, which is owned by Onyema and managed by a person with no connection to the aviation business, never owned the aircraft, and the company that allegedly drafted the appraisals did not exist.  Eghagha allegedly participated in this scheme as well, directing the Springfield Aviation manager to sign and send false documents to banks and even using the manager’s identity to further the fraud.  After Onyema received the money in the United States, he allegedly laundered over $16 million of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts.

Attorney Pak was quoted as saying:  “Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud.

“We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business,” he said.

Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division commenting said, “Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud. He corrupted the U.S. banking system, but his trail of deceit and trickery came to a skidding halt. DEA would like to thank the many law enforcement partners and the subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”

“This case is a prime example of why IRS-CI seeks to partner and leverage its expertise in an effort to thwart those seeking to exploit our nation’s financial system,” said Thomas J. Holloman, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office. “With the importance of our banking system to the movement of money around the world, those attempting to use intricate schemes to commit bank fraud through the use of falsified documents and other means should know that the odds are now heavily stacked against them as law enforcement is combining its talents to protect the sanctity and integrity of the nation’s financial system.”

“Onyema setup various innocent sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam. I’m proud to be part of a team of law enforcement agencies that come together to identify and attack criminals that attempt to profit from the exploitation of our nation’s financial systems,” Acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama was quoted as saying.

Members of the public are reminded that the indictment only contains charges.  The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, the release pointed out.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

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