A United States court on Friday sentenced a self-confessed conspirator in the alleged $20 million fraud allegedly organised by Air Peace CEO, Allen Onyema, to three years’ probation.
The court also awarded $4,000 as fine against Ebony Mayfield, who, had in June, pleaded guilty to the charge of signing and submitting fake documents to facilitate the alleged fraud.
The US government accused her of signing and submitting the fabricated documents between 2016 and 2018, to help Mr Onyema, owner of Air Peace, a major Nigerian commercial airline, to move $20 million from Nigeria to the US in an alleged money laundering scheme.
She was charged in 2019, and she initially pleaded “not guilty” to all eight charges at the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta.
But she changed her plea to plead guilty to one of the charges in June, after entering into a plea agreement that saw the US government drop the seven remaining charges against her.
The law under which she was charged provided for maximum five years jail term for the offence she pleaded guilty to.
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Following her guilty plea, her lawyer filed for a variance of sentence on 13 October, begging to be sentenced to a probated sentence or what is called supervised release, instead of imprisonment.
The US government, in its response, agreed to a lower limit of sentence range, which includes house detention for six months.
At the sentencing on Friday, the judge, Eleanor Ross, after discussing the pre-sentence report with lawyers to the parties, and listening to Ms Mayfield briefly, imposed “a total of THREE (3) YEARS of probation” on her.
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The judge also ordered “$4,000 fine (the interest is waived); $100 special assessment; and additional requirements.”
He also gave her limited appellate rights, and noted that she was ready on bail.
The court’s decision is a concession to the defendant’s request for probated sentence or what her lawyer called conditional release, PremiumiTimes reports.
The defence lawyer, Manubir Arora, had said “imprisonment is not the only form of punishment” and stressed that “probation alone is a viable alternative form of punishment.”
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Under the probated sentence, Ms Mayfield’s lawyers said, her travel would be restricted and her associations would be regulated.
She would also be subject to random searches of her person and premises and subject to other special conditions such as house arrest and intermittent confinement.
A probation officer would also be appointed to monitor her during the three years period.
“In Ms Mayfield’s case, probation serves all the goals of sentencing even though the guidelines may call for imprisonment,” her lawyer wrote.
Hoping “to put this unfortunate series of choices behind her,” she confessed that Mr Onyema paid her a total of $20,000 for the part she played in the scheme between 2016 and 2018.
She also said her participation in the alleged crime brought shame upon her family.
I’m innocent – Onyema
Again, Mr Allen Onyema, denied any wrongdoing regarding the allegations on Friday.
Mr Onyema and another official of Air Peace, Ejiroghene Eghagha, maintained their innocence in a press release by their lawyers.
The statement by A.O. Alegeh & Co law firm was silent on the 36 charges of fraud and money laundering still pending against Mr Onyema and his co-defendant at the same court where Ms Mayfield was prosecuted.
But they maintained in their press release that the fact that Ms Mayfield was not given any prison sentence, confinement or home detention by the court confirmed that there was no fraud in the $20 million deal.
“This confirms the position of our clients that there was no fraudulent intent in all the Letters of Credit, there was no victim in any way, manner or form.
“All the funds involved were legitimate funds belonging to Our Clients. There was no loss of money or any damage whatsoever to any third party,” the press statement read.
It added that the US government, which has yet to terminate the pending 36 charges against Mr Onyema and his co-defendant, “admitted in court today that no bank suffered any financial loss in this matter.”
The statement also denied that Mr Onyema paid Ms Mayfield $20,000 for her roles in the alleged fraud.
Recall Ms Mayfield in court had claimed she received $20,000 while she participated in “the conspiracy” between 2016 and 2018.
Denying the claim, Mr Onyema’s lawyers said: “Our Clients never took loans or credit from any US Bank and Ebony was never paid the sum of $20,000.00 at any time to commit any fraud, as is being peddled by a section of the Nigerian Press. Ebony, like other Springfield Aviation Company Inc. staff was only paid her bi-weekly salary and/or allowances.
“These stories are far from the truth and are deliberately being peddled by a section of the Nigerian Press for ulterior motives.”
The statement insisted that “all steps taken in respect of the Letters of Credit were taken in good faith and with legitimate funds.”
“All the aircraft involved were brought into Nigeria abd utilised in the operations of Air Peace Limited. There was no victim. There was no loss of funds to any person and there was no criminal intent whatsoever.”
The law firm added that various law enforcement agencies in Nigeria had reviewed the case and “no evidence of criminality has been established against our Clients.”
Mayfield’s case closed, Mr Onyema’s charges remain
Moreso, Ms Mayfield’s sentencing on Friday brought her trial to conclusion, the judge said.
But the separate case in which Mr Onyema and an Air Peace official are charged remains.
Mr Onyema and Air Peace Limited’s Head of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, still have 36 charges of fraud and money laundering pending against them since 2019 at the same court.
Prosecutors said Mr Onyema engaged, Ms Mayfield, a bartender and nightclub dancer, as a manager for his Atlanta, Gerogia-based Springfield Aviation Company LLC in 2016.
The Air Peace founder set up the firm to, purportedly, “specialise in the wholesaling, trading, and sale of commercial aircraft and parts”.
But the US government said, Mr Onyema engaged Ms Mayfield to enter into aviation-related contracts on behalf of Springfield Aviation, despite her lack of education, training, or licensing in the review and valuation of aircraft and aircraft components.
In her plea bargain that she filed in June, Ms Mayfield confessed to signing and submitting fake documents enabling a $20 million credit disbursement from Nigeria to US bank accounts, purportedly for Air Peace to buy five Boeing 737 passenger planes from Springfield Aviation.
The fake documents allegedly submitted by the conspirators included fabricated purchase agreements, bills of sale, and valuation.
Both Air Peace, a major Nigerian commercial airline, and the purported aircraft seller, Springfield Aviation, are owned by My Onyema.
Prosecutors alleged that the aircraft referenced in the letters of credit and other fake documents submitted with respect to the deal were already owned by Air Peace. None of them ever belonged to Springfield Aviation, the prosecution said.
They also alleged that Mr Onyema founded and used Springfield Aviation “to facilitate large transfers of funds from his Nigerian bank accounts to the United States.”
Mr allegedly moved about $15 million from Springfield Aviation’s account with a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Atlanta, Georgia, to his personal savings account with the same bank in 27 transactions in 2017.
The flagged 27 transactions took place between 22 March and 29 November 2017.
Mr Onyema and Air Peace Limited’s Head of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, are facing 36 charges at the District Court in Atlanta, in connection with the alleged $20 million fraudulent scheme.
Among the charges preferred against them are bank fraud, credit application fraud and money laundering.
Each of the flagged 27 online transfers carried out by Mr Onyema within nine months in 2017 involved values ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.
The transactions totalled $15.14 million.
Each of the 27 transactions stands alone as a charge of money laundering.
Under the money laundering charges, prosecutors alleged that both Messrs Onyema and Eghagha, aided and abetted by others, “attempted to engage in a monetary transaction” involving a financial institution, with effect on “interstate and foreign commerce”.
They alleged that each of the transactions involved more than $10,000 “criminally derived from unlawful activities” including bank fraud and credit application fraud.
In November 2020, the government of the state of Georgia dissolved Springfield Aviation over its failure to file its annual registration and/or failure to maintain a registered agent or registered office in this state.
Mr Onyema denied all the allegations of fraud levelled against him when the charges against him were unveiled by the US government in 2019.
Although he said the charges did not reflect his personality as a business owner, he and his co-defendant have yet to appear in court.