Nigerian man charged with unemployment scam will remain in jail

SEATTLE (AP) – A Nigerian government official arrested in connection with a $ 650 million unemployment fraud in Washington state will remain in jail until his trial, a federal judge said on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle of Tacoma agreed with federal prosecutors that Abidemi Rufai, 42, posed a flight risk and overturned a previous order granting him interim release, the Seattle Times reported..

Rufai, from Lekki, Nigeria, was arrested on May 14 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City as he prepared to travel to Nigeria via Amsterdam, federal authorities said.

Rufai was charged after allegedly stealing more than $ 350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington State Department of Employment Security in 2020 and attempting to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $ 1.6 million dollars, authorities said.

Prior to his arrest, Rufai was Senior Special Assistant for Housing in Nigeria’s Ogun State, but has since been suspended.

A New York federal judge ruled in May that Rufai could be released before his trial on $ 300,000 bail, but delayed the release to allow federal prosecutors to appeal.

In his decision on Friday, Settle said the “defendant presents a serious risk of non-appearance.”

Settle has ordered Rufai, who is in custody in New York, to be transported by Federal Marshals to Washington for his trial, which is scheduled for August 31. Tacoma’s attorney, Lance Hester, one of Rufai’s attorneys, said Rufai may ask the court to reconsider Friday’s ruling. decision if there were any changes in his situation.

Federal officials have called Rufai the “significant” first arrest linked to the Washington fraud. Washington State has been severely victimized by fraudulent claims for benefits related to the pandemic. He likely paid more than $ 647 million in such fraudulent claims, although $ 370 million has been recovered, state officials say.

Another lawyer for Rufai, Michael C. Barrows, said his client “denies any involvement in these transactions.”

The case shed light on how criminals have been able to file bogus unemployment claims in dozens of states.

Rufai reportedly used a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, that allowed him to use a single email account to file multiple jobless claims in Washington and elsewhere using stolen social security numbers and other data. personal.

This same technique was reportedly used by Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, a 38-year-old computer engineer at a Nigerian oil company, to steal about $ 290,000 in UI benefits in Washington and other states, and about $ 50,000 in Federal disaster loans, indictment says. returned to Tacoma Federal District Court on Wednesday.

Prosecutors have not suggested a connection between the two men. Court documents did not list a lawyer who could comment on behalf of Onyegbula.

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