Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Gov Abiodun's Aide Pleads Guilty To $350,000 Fraud In US


A former  aide to Ogun State governor, Dapo Abiodun, has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Abidemi Rafai has been in custody since his arrest at JFK Airport in New York in May 2021.  At the time of his arrest, he was the Special Assistant to the Governor of  Ogun State, Dapo Abiodun.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ), 45-year-old Rufai,  pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for using stolen identities to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in government relief benefits. 

Court documents revealed that, since 2017, Rufai has been stealing personal identify information for more than 20,000 Americans to submit more than $2 million worth in claims for federally funded relief programs. 

In 2017, Rufai submitted 49 disaster relief claims connected to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Between 2017 and 2020, Rufai attempted to obtain more than $1.7 million in IRS tax refunds by submitting 675 false claims. In total, the agencies he scammed paid out more than $600,000. 

The largest amount of fraud was committed against the Washington State Employment Security Department, which paid out $350,763 in COVID-19 unemployment benefits. Rufai also submitted fraudulent pandemic unemployment claims in at least 17 other states. 

Roughly $270 million stolen from the Employment Security Department (ESD)  is believed to have been transferred overseas before investigators or banks could freeze the funds, state officials have said. About $380 million has been recovered, ESD officials have said. 

Rufai’s 2021 arrest came almost a year to the day after ESD officials announced the fraud, the biggest in state history, and said they would temporarily suspend unemployment benefit payments. 

That suspension and the subsequent tightening of filing requirements contributed to massive delays in benefit payments to tens of thousands of Washingtonians laid off during the first weeks of the pandemic. 

Rufai’s arrest revealed important details as to how criminals could bypass ESD’s security systems using a simple feature of Google’s free Gmail service.

Gmail allows account holders to create dozens of additional email addresses simply by adding periods to the original address, investigator have said. Because Gmail doesn’t recognize periods, any emails sent to those so-called dot variant addresses are all routed to the inbox of the original Gmail address.

Rufai used the dot variant addresses to create multiple accounts in the Washington state system that authenticates online users of government services, investigators have said. He then filed for benefits with the ESD using stolen personal identities of real Washington residents. One reason the ruse was effective is that any emails sent by ESD on behalf of these claimants were all routed to Rufai’s inbox.

His plea, two years after his crime, highlights the challenges investigators have had in tracking down suspects in the fraud that struck ESD and most other states. 

On Tuesday, Rufai agreed to pay full restitution to the defrauded agencies. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend no more than 71 months in prison.

“He has agreed to disclose all of his assets and to cooperate in US government efforts to recover on those assets. At this point we don’t know what kind of recovery will result",  U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Emily Langlie said on Wednesday. 

So far, just a handful of suspects have been charged in the ESD case. These include Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, a Nigerian IT engineer charged with stealing roughly $290,000 in benefits from ESD and from other states; Reyes De La Cruz III, a former ESD employee charged with stealing at least $360,000 in jobless benefits; and Seattle residents Bryan Alan Sparks, 40, and Autumn Gail Luna, 22, who were charged  with stealing at least $500,000 in jobless benefits from ESD and $520,000 in Small Business Administration loans.

Prosecutors have agreed to recommend no more than six years in prison for Rufai, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A U.S. District judge will officially sentence Rufai on August 15, 2022.

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