A prosecution witness, Mr Chris Okafor, on Wednesday narrated how Tom Awhana, a former Head of law firm of Mr Mogbeyi Sagay, a late Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), allegedly stole N188.7m belonging to the firm.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that Okafor, a lawyer currently working in the law firm, testified as the third prosecution witness in the trial of Awhana and Paul Okoro, a former lawyer in the firm.
Okafor was led in evidence by Mr A. O. Mohammed, counsel to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Okafor told the court that he came to court to testify in the case based on a petition filed to the EFCC on the instructions of the administrators of an estate of the late SAN and Prof. Itse Sagay, the consultant to the law firm.
The witness said that the law firm had two known bank accounts which were in Access Bank and Zenith Bank.
He noted that Awhana, the first defendant, was one of the four administrators of the late SAN’s estate.
He said that Awhana, by virtue of his status in the firm, held vital documents belonging to the law firm.
“Incomes from the firm were paid into the Zenith Bank account and expenditures of the law firm were also withdrawn from that account.
“Any three of the four signatories can withdraw money from the account.
“The withdrawal cheque booklet was domiciled with the first defendant until June 4, 2018, when he left the law firm.
He handed over the cheque booklet to Mr Cliff Kokogho, one of the administrators,” the witness said.
Okafor noted that after Awhana left the law firm, the alleged fraud perpetrated by him was uncovered through a revelation by a client, Mr Babatunde Allen.
He said: “After the first defendant”s exit, the firm conducted an inventory and discovered that some files were missing from the office,.
“While that was going on, one of the major clients of the firm, Mr Babatunde Allen, came to the office to follow up on his case.
“He was reminded by the firm that he had some outstanding fees but he stated that he had paid over N18 million in fees to the firm.
“The office account was checked to confirm Mr Allen’s claims and it was discovered that only N5 million was cleared in the account.
“Mr Allen told us he made payment via cheques and he initially did not specify the beneficiary in the cheques but just filled in the amount and handed them over to Awhana.
“In July 2018, we discovered that Mr Allen actually made payment of N17.5 million and that N16 million was cleared in an account named Mogbeyi Sagay and Co. while only N5 million cleared in our account.”
Okafor said he approached Awhana to enquire if there were any accounts in the name of the firm and informed him of Allen’s claims.
He said Awhana denied that there were other bank accounts in the firm’s name and also denied Allen’s claims.
He said after Awhana’s denial, Prof. Itse Sagay requested the administrators to write to the first defendant to request for the files missing from the law firm and for clarification on Allen’s claims.
“Mr Allen went to the headquarters of his bank and discovered that the money he paid cleared in an account domiciled in Heritage Bank which was also entitled Mogbeyi Sagay and Co.
“This account was fraudulently opened by the first defendant and he was the sole signatory to the account. There was no authorisation from the administrators of the estate to open these accounts after the death of Mogbeyi Sagay.
“The first defendant admitted in his response to the letters sent to him by the administrators that he actually opened the accounts without authorisation and that it was some clients that lured him to open that account.
“We discovered there was another Union Bank account while the EFCC discovered a third with FCMB.
“Most of these money were entitled to the late SAN for projects he had completed or were in their final stages of completion before be passed away, ” Okafor said.
He said that the first defendant admitted spending the funds, claiming that he used the money to augment funds given to him to run the law firm.
Okafor said that after Awhana was caught pilfering the funds, he sent a text message to Prof. Sagay admitting that he opened some accounts in the name of the firm without authorisation.
“Prof. Itse Sagay said that the matter should be reported to the authorities, and I was instructed to petition to the EFCC,” the witness said.
Earlier, Mr Soridei Akene, who works with the Heritage Bank, admitted that Awhana opened and ran an account in the law firm’s name with the bank.
Mr Charles Onwubulem, a Regulating Laison Officer with Union Bank, while testifying, said that Awhana and Okoro were both signatories to an account opened in the law firm’s name with Union Bank.
NAN reports that Awhana and Okoro are jointly facing a charge of conspiracy to steal.
Also, Okoro denied a charge of stealing while Awhana plead not guilty to a 16-count charge of stealing.
Okoro, a former lawyer in the law firm, was accused by the EFCC of stealing N3.6 million from the firm, while Awhana who was the Head of Chambers of the law firm from 2010 to 2018, allegedly stole N188.7 million belonging to the law firm of the late senior lawyer died in 2012.
Awhana was made a signatory to the law firm’s Zenith Bank Account alongside three administrators of the late SAN’s estate.
He is alleged to have diverted drawn cheques into secret accounts and had, from 2012 to 2017, stolen the funds.
According to the EFCC, the offences contravene Sections 287 and 409 of the Criminal Law of Lagos 2015.
Justice Mojisola Dada adjourned the case until Sept. 10 for continuation of trial. (NAN)