In 2014, Mr. Olufolajimi Abegunde, relocated to the U.S. He aimed to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas.
Upon graduation in 2016, and recognizing opportunities in the remittances industry, he incorporated FJ Williams Inc. doing business as (DBA) TranzAlert, a financial technology start-up. He is currently serving a jail term in the US. In this interview, Abegunde speaks on his ordeal.
Tell us about the situation…‘I have been incarcerated for over 50 months in the U.S prison. Things are tough and hard here. My travails began in August 2016 when a long-time friend, Ayodeji Ojo, visited me in the US from Nigeria along with his pregnant wife and infant daughter.
Ojo and his family were accommodated at my home in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time of the visit, Ojo had a wholly legitimate cheque of $26,900 that was issued to him by Bank of America. He intended to cash the cheque and utilise the funds for expenses associated with his family’s trip, including medical expenses related to his pregnant wife.
After being unsuccessful in his attempts to cash the cheque at multiple Bank of America branches, due to the relatively large size of the cheque, Ojo was advised by a Bank of America banker to open a new bank account at another bank, to let the cheque go through the clearing process before the funds would become available to him.
Ojo chose Wells Fargo Bank, and at Wells Fargo, he was told that he was required to provide a valid identification document, and contact information for correspondence in the form of a US mailing address and a US mobile phone number. Ojo informed the Wells Fargo banker that he was a visitor in the US and did not have a US mailing address and a US mobile phone number.
After Ojo asked me, I permitted him to utilize my address and mobile phone number to open the account. And so the bank account was opened on August 29, 2016, and Ojo was able to access the funds two days after without any challenges. From 2014 to 2016, there was a financial crisis in Nigeria around that time, and the government had stopped providing U.S. Dollars through official channels.
So people and businesses that needed U.S. Dollars had no choice but to access it through informal channels; which is a fancy way of saying the black market in Nigeria. In other words, informal currency exchange services became a de facto part of the marketplace for exchanging currencies, such that there is no legal requirement for buyers to know the sources of the funds the seller is exchanging
So after about three months that my friend left my house and back to Nigeria, he needed to buy some U.S Dollars, he approached one Leke Adenuga , who after agreeing on the rate requested that he provide his U.S. bank account (that he opened using my address and US mobile phone number) for the deposit of the agreed US Dollar amount of $9,000.
In other words, Ojo simply engaged in a foreign exchange transaction where he gave up the Nigerian Naira equivalent of $9,000 for the actual $9,000 which Ojo neither accessed nor spent.
Needless to say, with the FX situation at the time, Ojo cannot be blamed for an innocent transaction with Leke Adeleke due to the prevailing scarcity. Few days after that deposition took place, I received a phone call from Brian Ancona, an investigator with Wells Fargo Bank on my phone, the same mobile phone number Ojo had utilised to open his Wells Fargo Bank account, stating that a certain Luis Ramos Alonso had inadvertently deposited $9,000 into Ojo’s bank account, and was seeking a reversal of the $9,000 deposit.
I told Ancona that the account owner was in Nigeria, and attempted a three-way call to connect Ancona with Ojo (the owner of the account). The effort was, however, unsuccessful. I eventually got through to Ojo and conveyed Ancona’s urgent message regarding the reversal, in which Ojo immediately agreed and authorised the reversal of the $9,000 deposit. The $9,000 was reversed and I thought that was the end of the story.
At what point did the police intervene?
However, on March 15, 2017, two FBI agents – Kevin Hall, and Tyson Fowler of the Atlanta Field Division of the FBI – visited my home to inquire about Ojo. One of the agents pulled out a copy of Ojo’s Nigerian passport data page and asked if I knew the bearer of the passport data page. I confirmed to the agents that Ojo was a long-time friend who I had accommodated during Ojo’s visit to the U.S. in August 2016.
I also confirmed to them that I had granted Ojo permission to utilize my address and mobile phone number to open a bank account with Wells Fargo Bank for the reason that Ojo resides in Nigeria and neither had a U.S. address nor a U.S. mobile phone number.
The agents engaged in wide-ranging convivial discussions about my remittances business and fraud in general. In these discussions, I vehemently and categorically condemned all forms of fraud. With the benefit of hindsight, two questions by the agents stood out and should have raised thunderous alarm bells. The questions were asked by agent Tyson Fowler.
The first was ‘How is it that you can afford a place like this?’ And the second was ‘why do you Nigerians like to defraud Americans?’ After the second question, Kevin Hall appeared to have an adverse reaction to the question and Fowler ceased going further. I offered the agents full cooperation by providing them Ojo’s contact information and also ensured that Ojo contacted the agents’ shortly after they departed my home.
I thought that was the end of the story. Unfortunately, the decision to hospitably open my doors to the FBI agents, and engage in unfiltered innocent discussion with them – in the absence of competent legal representation led to my undoing. On February 7, 2018, I had intended to travel to the Dominican Republic.
However, due to circumstances beyond my control, the trip had to be rescheduled. So I went to the airport on that day to effect the flight change. The initial ticket was scheduled for a departure from Atlanta on February 7, 2018 and return on February 10, 2018.
And the rescheduled ticket was booked to depart Atlanta on August 30, 2018, and return on September 2, 2018. This unequivocally indicates that I did not intend to depart the U.S.
To my greatest surprise, we were done with the flight change, and were walking away from the check-in counter when all of a sudden two men in plain clothes who identified themselves as Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers that were acting on behalf of the FBI accosted me with so much force that I was both confused and terrified. I kept telling them they had the wrong person.
After placing me in handcuffs, they took out my wallet from my pocket, took out my driver’s license, and then brought out an arrest warrant to confirm my identity. It turned out that they did not have the wrong person. The initial indictment charged me and Ojo with the same Counts of Wire Fraud Conspiracy, Money Laundering Conspiracy and Aggravated Identity Theft.
Court records show that there was no evidence to support these charges. At the bond hearing held on June 25, 2018; under cross-examination by my attorney at the time, FBI Special Agent David Palmer – one of the lead case agents – was questioned regarding the bank account that Mr. Ojo opened using my address.
My attorney: was there anything illegal about that? Is there anything illegal about using an address you know, as a point of reference to a bank to open an account? Agent Palmer: No. As long as we’re assuming there’s permission.
Again, at the trial, the testimony of one of the FBI agents that investigated the case – Special Agent Marcus Vance – corroborates the facts that Ojo’s account was opened August 29, 2016; a wholly legitimate cheque of $26,900 was deposited into the account on the same day; and that there was no evidence that the check was associated with the July 25, 2016 fraud in particular, or any form of fraud in general.
Wells Fargo Investigator, Brian Ancona also confirmed during the trial that his calls to my phone led to the reversal of the $9,000 deposit because Ojo did not protest when asked to return the money.
The entire case was centered on the infamous $9,000 transaction. However, from the indictment to my sentencing – there is no evidence whatsoever that reflects any link between me and the $9,000 transaction.
Rather, all the evidence on the record points to the fact that I was neither directly nor remotely connected to the $9,000 transaction. No evidence was also found on my seized devices to show money laundering, or any involvement with BEC, romance scams or fraud in general.
Similarly, testimony by Mr. Theodore Vlahkis, an expert witness from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, as well as testimony from Special Agent Marcus Vance, made it abundantly clear that my business, FJ Williams Inc. DBA TranzAlert was in full compliance with its regulatory obligations and so did not violate any anti-money laundering policy. U.S. District Courts Judge, Judge Sheryl Lipman sentenced me to 78 months in prison and ordered that I pay $57,911.62 in restitution despite no evidence that I knowingly received illicit funds. So I call on our government in Nigeria to look at the case and the evidence. All the evidence are documented and available online.
What’s the current situation over there?
The prosecutors presented falsehoods that were not only unsupported by the evidence at trial but were actually contrary to the evidence at trial – to the jury during trial summation. For reasons I do not understand why my lawyer did not object to these falsehoods. I appealed the case and the Appeal Court didn’t look at the case at all nor consider any of the evidence on the record.
Rather, the Appeal Court swallowed the prosecutor’s falsehood hook, line and sinker. I then approached the Supreme Court. They declined to pick up the case. So I am working on another appeal right now, if history is a guide, I am not likely to get justice through the U.S Court system. However, I see a remedy. If there is enough public attention to my case, the U.S justice system will be forced to deliver justice. If we can put a spotlight on my case, by pushing the evidence out for the whole world to see, I will become a free man and my reputation will be resuscitated.
How do you want Nigerian government to come to your aid?
Nigeria has a bilateral relationship with the United States. The Attorney General of Nigeria can contact the U.S Attorney General to demand a review of my case.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Head of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission, can also utilize diplomatic channels – with their U.S counterpart – to demand Justice in my case.
I am also using this medium to call on civil/ human rights organizations – in the U.S, and all around the world- to use their resources and capabilities to bring about justice in my case.