PUSH NEWS 24 INTERNATIONAL : December 19th, 2022
On a perfect spring day, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Abidemi Rufai arrived at the international terminal ready for the long journey back home to Nigeria.
On his wrist, Rufai, 44, wore an expensive Cartier watch. Around his neck, he wore an 18-karat gold chain with a lion pendant. As he approached the check-in desk for his business class seat on the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight, Rufai had seven pieces of luggage, three smartphones, and seven debit and credit cards.
It was May 2021. A year earlier, Rufai had pulled off a spectacular heist of U.S. taxpayer money. The calm with which he moved through the airport belied the chaos he had left in his wake.
His brazen and repeated pilfering of coronavirus relief funds had helped freeze the entire unemployment system in the state of Washington, where he had obtained identifying information for unsuspecting residents. For months, state and federal officials struggled to get ahead of Rufai and other fraudsters, sparking investigations on two continents that culminated in a guilty plea. Eventually, they would discover in Rufai’s email accounts and phone the personal data of 20,000 Americans and voluminous stolen tax returns, as well as photos of Rufai with a powerful Nigerian governor and images of him dressed impeccably in dark sunglasses and royal-blue robes. In one, he sat on an ornate thronelike chair.
Rufai had managed to escape the United States for relative safety in Nigeria in late 2020, just months after his heist. Remarkably, he later returned. Now, as he approached the ticket agent, six law enforcement officers were positioned nearby, watching him.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, the U.S. government has spent more than $5 trillion to respond to the crisis and stabilize the American economy. Much of that money helped families and businesses survive a dire economic shutdown. But billions of dollars were stolen, and no one is sure, even now, exactly how much has disappeared.
A former Nigerian government official was sentenced Monday to five years in prison for stealing more than $500,000 in pandemic relief benefits in the United States.
Abidemi Rufai was wearing a $10,000 watch and $35,000 gold chain when he was arrested at JFK International Airport in New York on his way to Nigeria in May 2021.
Rufai pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, in May to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges, and Judge Benjamin Settle issued the sentence Monday. The judge also ordered Rufai to pay more than $600,000 in restitution.
Prosecutors said the 45-year-old had a history of defrauding the U.S. government, including using stolen identities to file for emergency relief after hurricanes in Texas and Florida.
“When disaster struck, so did Mr. Rufai,” Seattle U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said in a news release. “Whether it was hurricane disaster relief, small business loans, or COVID unemployment benefits, he stole aid that should have gone to disaster victims in the United States.”
Such fraud was rampant in pandemic relief programs, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general, who said last week that $45.6 billion may have been paid out improperly in unemployment insurance from March 2020 to April 2022.
The Justice Department filed charges against dozens of people in Minnesota last week in connection with a $250 million fraud scheme that exploited a federally funded child nutrition program during the pandemic.
Rufai, of Lekki, Nigeria, has a master’s degree and is politically connected in his home country, prosecutors said. He had purported to run a sports betting company since 2016, his finances were opaque and his main source of income apparently was defrauding the U.S. government.
He was known as a prolific political fundraiser, and in 2019, he ran unsuccessfully for Nigeria’s National Assembly, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cindy Chang and Seth Wilkinson wrote in a sentencing memo.
Between April and October 2020, he used a cache of stolen identities – investigators found more than 20,000 of them, with birthdates and social security numbers in one of his email accounts – to file for pandemic-related benefits. He applied with the workforce agencies of at least nine states, including Washington’s Employment Security Department, in the names of at least 224 Americans.
A scramble, then an arrest
In January 2021, investigators asked Google for the contents of the email@example.com account and its associated Google Drive account. When Google provided the information in February, investigators were astonished.
The account contained over 1,000 emails from the Washington state unemployment agency, personal data for more than 20,000 Americans and “a very large volume” of Americans’ real personal tax returns. They also found evidence that Rufai had targeted U.S. businesses and that his frauds on the American government stretched back to at least 2017.
In a major misstep, Rufai also had stored photos of himself on the account.
The haul was “pretty shocking,” said FBI Special Agent Heidi Hawkins, one of the lead agents investigating Rufai. Investigators could now pinpoint him with some certainty as the perpetrator of the fraud.
As long as Rufai was overseas, however, he would be difficult to bring into custody. Nigeria has an extradition treaty with the United States, but such requests require far more work and coordination between U.S. government agencies than a typical prosecution, experts said. Rufai’s status as a serving government official affiliated with the ruling party would probably make the matter even more complicated.
Then came a breakthrough in May 2021. Federal agents had requested Rufai’s travel records and found to their surprise that he had flown back to the United States in March. They also discovered that he was due to get on an outbound flight on May 14.
They had just two days, or he’d be gone again, perhaps for good.