Abidemi Rufai, an aide to Ogun State governor Dapo Abiodun until his arrest last year, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Mr Rufai, 45, acknowledged to claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic-related jobless benefits using stolen identities, according to US Attorney Nick Brown.
Abidemi Rufai has been held in detention since his arrest in May 2021 at New York’s JFK airport. Rufai was the Special Assistant to the Governor of Nigeria’s Ogun State at the time of his detention, according to a US Department of Justice report.
According to the plea bargain, Abidemi Rufai illegally stole the personal identifying information of more than 20,000 Americans between 2017 and 2018 in order to file more than $2 million in claims for federally funded benefits under a number of relief programs. More than $600,000 was paid out by the different authorities involved.
The Washington State Employment Security Department was the victim of the most fraud, with $350,763 in bogus pandemic unemployment claims sent to accounts controlled by Abidemi Rufai.
In addition, the Nigerian filed false pandemic unemployment claims in at least 17 other states.
Mr Rufai also defrauded the Small Business Administration (SBA) by attempting to obtain Economic Injury Disaster loans (EIDL) tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April 8, 2020, and June 26, 2020, he submitted 19 fraudulent EIDL applications. SBA paid out $10,000 based on the applications.
Between 2017 and 2020, Abidemi Rufai attempted to obtain more than $1.7 million in IRS tax refunds by submitting 675 false claims. The IRS paid out $90,877 on these claims.
Mr Rufai’s efforts to enrich himself with false disaster claims did not start with COVID-19. In September and October 2017, he submitted 49 disaster relief claims connected to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. He filed $24,500 in false claims and was paid on 13 claims totaling $6,500.
Abidemi Rufai has agreed to pay full restitution to the defrauded agencies.
Wire fraud in relation to a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Aggravated identity theft is punishable two years in prison to follow any prison term imposed on another charge.
Prosecutors have agreed to recommend no more than 71 months in prison. The recommendation is not binding on U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle, who will determine the appropriate sentence on August 15, 2022, after considering the sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.
Abidemi Rufai’s case was investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, and the United States Small Business Administration Office of the Inspector General. The Washington Employment Security Department is cooperating in the investigation.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Cindy Chang of the Western District of Washington.
On May 17, 2021, the U.S. Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud such as the one perpetrated by Abidemi Rufai.
The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts.