Nigerian carrier Air Peace’s chief executive, Allen Onyema, and director Ejiro Eghagha have strenuously denied allegations of fraud after they were charged by US authorities.
The indictment by the US Attorney’s Office for the northern district of Georgia centres on transfer of more than $20 million from Nigeria through US bank accounts.
It says this involved falsified documentation based on the purchase of aircraft.
Onyema and Eghagha have each stated, through Lagos legal firm Alegeh & Co, that they will defend themselves “vigorously” against the charges.
The Attorney’s Office says Onyema has been indicted for fraud and multiple counts of money laundering while Eghagha is charged with bank fraud and associated aggravated identity theft.
US Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Robert Murphy accuses Onyema of corrupting the US banking system with a “trail of deceit and trickery”.
Lagos-based Air Peace emerged in 2013 and has built a fleet of Boeing 777s and 737s, as well as Embraer regional jets. It has orders for 737 Max jets as well as Embraer E2s – an order which, during the Dubai air show last week, was disclosed to have increased.
The Attorney’s Office says Onyema, in the years after founding the carrier, travelled to the USA and purchased multiple aircraft.
But over $3 million of the funds used to purchase the aircraft allegedly came from bank accounts for organisations including Foundation for Ethnic Harmony and International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development.
Special agent in charge Robert Hammer, who oversees homeland security investigations in Georgia, accuses Onyema of setting up multi-million dollar asset purchase which were alleged “fronts” for illicit activity.
The two accused allegedly used letters of credit – purportedly to fund the purchase of five Boeing 737s from Georgia firm Springfield Aviation – to transfer over $20 million into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema.
But supporting documentation for the purchase was false, says the Attorney’s Office. Onyema owned Springfield Aviation and the company did not own the aircraft, it adds, and the company which allegedly drafted appraisals linked to the purchase did not exist. Over $16 million of the transferred funds were subsequently laundered, the Attorney’s Office says.
“We will diligently protect the integrity our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business,” says Byung Pak, US attorney for the northern district of Georgia.
Alegeh & Co says the allegations are “unfounded and strange” to Onyema and Eghagha, and adds that both will take “all necessary steps” to clear their names and protect their reputations.