Lagos High Court sentences defunct Bank PHB MD, Atuche over N25.7 billion theft

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Justice Lateefa Okunnu of the Ikeja Division of the Lagos State High Court on Wednesday sentenced Francis Atuche, the former managing director of the defunct Bank PHB, to six years in prison for stealing N27 billion.

The bank’s former chief financial officer, Ugo Anyanwu was also sentenced to six years in prison.

In a judgment that lasted over 10 hours, Justice Okunnu convicted the duo on 21 of the 27-count amended charge of conspiracy to commit a felony and stealing brought against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Justice Okunnu held that the EFCC successfully proved its case against the convicts beyond a reasonable doubt.

The judge rejected the claims of the defendants that they were merely professionally negligent.

She specifically held that Atuche and Anyanwu abused their powers, ignored established rules and regulations thereby putting the bank and depositors’ funds in danger.

The court also came to the conclusion that the convicts corruptly took advantage of their positions to confer on themselves undue financial benefits without regard to the health of the bank.

Justice Okunnu however, cleared Atuche’s wife on the charge of conspiracy and stealing.

According to the judge, the EFCC failed to link her to the crime and insisted that suspicion no matter how strong cannot take the place of fact.

The judge held that it was not proven that she was aware of the source of the funds she received into her account from her husband and she had no powers to take any decision to influence the transaction.

The EFCC had alleged that between November 2007 and April 2008, the accused persons stole about N25.7bn belonging to the bank.

The anti-graft agency had also claimed that of the total N25.7bn, they stole about N14.7bn by fraudulently describing it as a loan to some companies and subsequently converted the said sum to personal use.

The Commission had listed the companies as Future View Securities, Extra Oil Limited, Resolution Trust and Investment Limited, and Tradjek Nigeria Ltd.

The EFCC also alleged that another N11bn stolen by the defendants was used to purchase about 984,375,000 units of Bank PHB shares for themselves.

According to the commission, the sum used for purchasing the shares was described as a loan to some companies including, Guesstrade Services, Sentron Trading, Montrax Investico, Claremount Management Ltd., Trenton Trade, and others.

In proof of its case against the accused persons, the EFCC called 12 witnesses who gave oral evidence. It also called 6 others to present some documents which were admitted as exhibits by the court.

‘I am sorry and remorseful’ – Atuche begs

After convicting the duo, the judge asked if they had any plea to make and they answered in the affirmative.

Addressing the court, Mr Atuche begged not to be sent to jail. He prayed to Mrs Okunnu to temper justice with mercy.

“I pray that God will place in your heart to be kind. I plead from the bottom of my heart. I’m extremely sorry. Today will be a turning point in my life. I’m very sorry,” he begged.

“All the time I was the MD of Bank PHB, I gave my all to the bank. Never at any material time did it occur to me that I would set up a scheme to defraud the bank.

“I plead for mercy, leniency, your kindness, and I plead that out of your kindness and generosity, you will not allow me to go to jail.

“I am sorry and remorseful,” Atuche said.

Mr Atuche told the court that he did not want to become a convict as a professional banker and chartered accountant.

Pleading also, Mr Anyanwu told the court that he was the only son of a police officer who died when he was barely a year old.

He added that he grew up on the premise of hard work.

“What I achieved in the banking industry is by dint of hard work. I have suffered in the last 10 years of this trial. I am sorry if I appeared cocky in the witness box during my examination-in-chief.

“I have two kids who are barely teenagers. They look up to their father, and I wonder what kind of impact this will have on them. Please temper justice with mercy,” Mr Anyanwu prayed.

Reacting to the defendants’ pleas, the EFCC team led by Kemi Pinheiro requested stiff sentences and an order of restitution against the convicts.

He said, “We were taken to the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court several times by the defendants. During the trial, they were rude and cocky. That is not remorse. The third defendant (Anyanwu) decided to hold onto his loyalty to his boss (Atuche) against his loyalty to the state. We pray the court imposes the maximum sentence and orders restitution.”

Mrs Okunnu stated, “By stealing from the bank, they stole from innocent customers of the bank. I hereby make an order of restitution against the first and third defendants to refund the sums stated in counts one to 11, 14, and 24. The funds are to be paid to the relevant agencies that recovered the funds on behalf of the bank.”

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