The arraignment of a businessman, Chief Cletus Ibeto before Justice I.O. Ijelu of the Lagos State High Court sitting in Ikeja for an alleged N4.8 billion fraud was, again, stalled on Tuesday, December 5, 3023 due to his absence in court.
Ibeto alongside Ibeto Energy Development Company and Odoh Holdings Ltd were to be arraigned by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, on 10-count charges bordering on allegations of obtaining by false pretences, fraudulent conversion of property, criminal breach of trust, forgery and deception to the tune of N4.8bn.
Count one reads: "That Chief Cletus Ibeto, Ibeto Energy Development Ltd and Odoh Holdings Ltd, between June 2016 and May 2017, within the jurisdiction of the court, by false pretence and with intent to defraud, obtained from Dozzy Oil & Gas Ltd and Sir Daniel Chukwudozie, the sum of N4.8bn purporting same to be consideration for 22.6536 hectares of land, which he claimed to have at the end of Reclamation Road Layout, Port Harcourt, Rivers State by a deed of sublease executed by Odoh Holdings and Ibeto Energy Development Ltd when he only had 7.9 hectares of the said land."
Count three reads: "That Chief Cletus Ibeto, Ibeto Energy Development Ltd and Odoh Holdings Ltd. on or about January 30, 2018, allegedly with intent to defraud, forged a Deed Of Sublease between Odoh Holdings Ltd and Ibeto Development Ltd purportedly, registered as No 47, Page 47, Vol. 280 of the Lands Registry, Rivers State wherein they claimed that Odoh Holdings Ltd acquired leasehold interest in respect of 22.6536."
The defendants are further accused of obtaining N2.5 billion from their victims as consideration for a non-existent 14.1 hectares of land. The offences are contrary to Section 1 of the Advance Fee Fraud Act 2006, Section 365(3d) and (e), and Section 366 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2015.
At Tuesday’s proceedings, the Director of Public Prosecution in the Office of the Lagos State Attorney General, Dr. Babajide Martins, noted that the state was not involved in the matter.
He also told the court that the Office of the Lagos Attorney-General received a petition from the law firm of Robert Clark, SAN.
“I came to notify the court that we received a petition from the defendant in this case, pursuant to Section 211 of the 1999 Constitution, asking the Office of the Attorney General to take over the case. I have written a letter to the Honourable Court to that effect. The decision has not been made, and that decision can only be made when the AG's office receives the case file. We've sent a letter to the EFCC”, he said.
He further told the court that the said petition dated November 16, 2023 was received in the office of the state’s AG on November 16, 2023. Martins, who disclosed that he wrote a letter and sent same to the EFCC on Friday, December 1, 2023 to the effect, said: “The letter was to inform them that we received a petition and that the case file should be sent to the office of the Honourable Attorney General.” Continuing, he said: “Following the receipt of the case file, the AG will make a decision on whether they should continue or not based on its merit.”
On his part, Ibeto’s new counsel, Uche Obi( the fourth since September 28, 2023), told the court that he was holding the brief of Wole Olanipekun, SAN.
He argued that with the appearance of a counsel from the Office of the AG, "an issue of legal representation has just arisen this morning. It is trite law that whenever an issue of party or representation arises before the court, it has to be resolved first, so we know who is the counsel on record, with the authority to speak, engage the court, and conduct proceedings. The issue now is that, this morning, the learned DPP has approached the court in open court and announced the interest of the State to reappraise and take a decision on the legal representation of the complainant, and the state has to be given a chance and must be given a chance to make that decision. It appears to me, sir, that nothing else can be done today, but to allow for reasonable time for the State's decision and that is paramount”, he said.
Responding, prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacob, SAN, noted that "my learned friend did not appreciate the intervention made by the learned DPP, which is to the effect that they received a petition and that a decision has not been taken.” Jacobs further informed the court that the defence counsel was the fourth different senior advocate appearing for the defendant on each of the adjourned dates. "He did not say anything about the presence or absence of his client, which was deliberate," he said. Jacob further told the court that, following the bench warrant issued for the arrest of the defendant, the EFCC immediately swung into action and visited the premises of the defendant "where we knew he was at Ikoyi, but we didn't see him. We later found out that after your lordship's order, he sneaked out of the country.”
According to Jacob, the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation invited him to present the facts of the case. After seeing the facts, the AGF gave us the go-head to proceed," he said. He further told the court that a petition against this from Dr. Ikpeazu dated November 15, 2023 was also sent to the Chairman of the EFCC.
"The new Chairman was also briefed by the investigating officer and myself. After the review of the entire case, he came to the conclusion that it is because of the bench warrant that necessitated the petition, and that the defendant did not want to appear before this court," he said. He also submitted that "everything is being done to scuttle the hearing of this case.”
On the said letter of the state's AG, Jacob noted that, "this letter was written without hearing from us. But by the time they have the facts, they will have a change of mind". He further argued that the case was not one that the state's AG could take over as counts one and two were federal offences.
"The charge is not only on Lagos law. In fact, the main case is on the Federal Act, and Section 211 of the Constitution is only limited to state offences, and it cannot be extended to Section 174," he said. Jacob, however, added that the prosecution would "meet with the State’s AG to resolve our differences".
Responding, Obi explained that the absence of the defendant was due to ill-health. "The first defendant is indisposed in Dallas, United States, where he is receiving treatment for a life-threatening illness. So, contrary to the allegation of the prosecution, he did not sneak out of the country after the bench warrant," he said. He, thereafter, presented to the court a medical report to back his claim.
After listening to all the parties, Justice Ijelu adjourned till January 29, 2024, and held that "the issue of representation is in contention and has to be resolved; and so, this case is further adjourned for report on resolution as to legal representation for the prosecution".