EFCC, Usoro Tan­gle over ‘At­tor­ney’s Priv­i­lege’

Usoro: Ju­di­cially, his­tor­i­cally, is­sues of fees be­tween lawyer, client, mat­ter of priv­i­lege EFCC: NBA Pres­i­dent has ques­tions to an­swer

THISDAY - - FRONT PAGE - Alex Enumah in Abuja

The Eco­nomic and Fi­nan­cial Crimes Com­mis­sion, (EFCC), yesterday, in­sisted the Pres­i­dent of the Nige­rian Bar As­so­ci­a­tion (NBA), Paul Usoro, has a case to an­swer over the N1.4 bil­lion paid his law firm as pro­fes­sional fees by the Akwa Ibom State Gov­ern­ment.

Usoro said the fees were for him and “other em­i­nent mem­bers of the In­ner Bar and to a host of other mem­bers of the Outer Bar” whom he had en­gaged work with him in re­spect of sev­eral dis­pute res­o­lu­tion mat­ters for the state’s gov­ern­ment.

In a speech at the NBA Na­tional Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee meet­ing held on De­cem­ber 6, 2018 in Abuja, Usoro agreed that he had “been ques­tioned by the EFCC in the last sev­eral months in re­spect of fees that my firm had been paid by Akwa Ibom State Gov­ern­ment (AKSG) be­tween 2015 and 2016 and also fees that Gover­nor Udom Em­manuel, the Gover­nor of

Akwa Ibom State had paid me for the ben­e­fit of Coun­sel that worked on his Elec­tion Pe­ti­tion Ap­peal that was de­cided by the Supreme Court early in 2016.”

He said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the pro­fes­sional fees that were paid to his firm or through them to some other coun­sel “has very se­ri­ous and far­reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for all of us and the prac­tice of our pro­fes­sion,” which he urged them not to ig­nore.”

He ex­plained some dire im­pli­ca­tions for client-lawyer priv­i­lege, say­ing “It has ju­di­cially and his­tor­i­cally been ac­knowl­edged that is­sues of fees, as be­tween a lawyer and his client are a mat­ter of priv­i­lege.

He said the EFCC lacked lo­cus standi in Client-Lawyer con­trac­tual re­la­tion­ship, adding that “there is no pro­vi­sion in Nige­ria’s statute books that con­sti­tutes the EFCC into the au­di­tor of le­gal fees.”

He added that “the EFCC ap­pears to be strain­ing quite hard to crim­i­nalise the fees that are earned by lawyers for their le­git­i­mate work,” stat­ing that his was not the first of these in­tru­sions. “We re­call the case of Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, when the EFCC at­tempted to for­feit his fees on the pre­text that the funds came from il­le­gal sources.”

Usoro also stressed the in­de­pen­dence of le­gal pro­fes­sion and prac­tice, stat­ing that the prac­tice of law was founded on the in­de­pen­dence of the le­gal prac­ti­tioner and his courage to ad­vo­cate on be­half of his client to the best of his abil­ity and con­vic­tion, say­ing “that in­de­pen­dence and the courage to ad­vo­cate are now be­ing threat­ened and tram­pled upon by the EFCC.”

Few months back, Usoro had con­firmed, in a let­ter dated 05 June 2018, to the Head, Bank Fraud Sec­tion of the EFCC that “the pay­ments-on-ac­count were made by the Akwa Ibom State Gov­ern­ment in re­spect of sev­eral dis­pute res­o­lu­tion mat­ters that we han­dled and are still han­dling for the State.”

At­tach­ing what he de­scribed as a “non-ex­haus­tive list of these mat­ters,” the SAN then added that “the out­stand­ing fees due to us from the State Gov­ern­ment in re­spect of these mat­ters is far in ex­cess of what has so far been paid on ac­count and prior to your let­ter, we have been in the process of rec­on­cil­ing and set­tling ac­counts with the State Gov­ern­ment.”

Re­act­ing yesterday to Usoro’s speech at the NBA meet­ing, the EFCC in a state­ment by its act­ing spokesman, Tony Orilade said, "From the fore­go­ing and in line with the man­date of the Com­mis­sion, the SAN def­i­nitely has ques­tions to an­swer be­fore a com­pe­tent court of ju­ris­dic­tion on al­le­ga­tion of money laun­der­ing and no amount of in­tim­i­da­tion and or razzmatazz can stop the Com­mis­sion from car­ry­ing out le­git­i­mate as­sign­ment of in­ves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of fi­nan­cial im­pro­pri­ety.

"The act of mak­ing such hu­mon­gous pay­ment of over a bil­lion naira to an in­di­vid­ual from state vault raises rea­son­able sus­pi­cion of money laun­der­ing. This may amount to a dis­ser­vice to the peo­ple of Akwa Ibom state, and we shall not rest on our oars and al­low such fi­nan­cial crime to con­tinue un­abated. Paul Usoro, SAN, surely has a case to an­swer."

The state­ment fur­ther quoted Usoro to have said that the pay­ments were “in­de­pen­dent trans­ac­tions and the Akwa Ibom State Gov­ern­ment’s pay­ments-on-ac­count were in re­spect of my firm’s pro­fes­sional ser­vices to the State, while the pay­ments to the se­nior coun­sel were made by me for and on be­half of Gov. Udom Em­manuel, at his re­quest.”

The EFCC ar­gued that, while not dis­re­gard­ing such re­la­tion­ship, pay­ment of over N1.4 bil­lion to Usoro from the ac­count of Akwa Ibom State Gov­ern­ment for unof­fi­cial trans­ac­tion was noth­ing short of crim­i­nal di­ver­sion of pub­lic funds.

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