INVESTIGATION: How former Edo Governor, Lucky Igbinedion, lost N3.3 billion to Venezuelan conmen [Part 1]
Mr. Igbinedion, who stole his state blind while he was governor, has now been scammed of billions by Venezuelan fraudsters in a classic 419 deal
Premiumtimes – Nemesis may have finally caught up with ex-convict and former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion, as he has lost over N3.3 billion to Venezuelan fraudsters, in a deal that bears all the marks of a classic 419 scam, PREMIUM TIMES can authoritatively reveal.
Court documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES also suggest that Mr. Igbinedion may be insolvent, as two US-based law firms have walked away from a $600 million lawsuit he instituted against the alleged mastermind and the Venezuelan state owned oil company, Petroleos De Venezuela S.A (PDVSA), over his inability to pay retainer as low as N627,000.00 ($3,800.00).
Mr. Igbinedion plundered Edo State treasury for the eight years he was governor. He escaped jail after he reached a controversial plea bargain agreement with the Farida Waziri-led Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, which dropped all but one of the 191 charges of corruption and money laundering against him.
In 2008, a Federal High Court in Enugu sentenced him to six months in prison with the option of a N3.5 million fine. The controversial plea bargain agreement he reached with the EFCC also required that he return N500 million and three of the houses he acquired with stolen public funds to the Federal Government.
But it’s not yet Uhuru for Mr. Igbinedion as the Court of Appeal in Benin ruled on April 9, 2014 that he has a case to answer over a fresh 66-count money laundering and financial impropriety suit brought against him by the EFCC. A Federal High Court had ruled in 2011 that it would amount to double jeopardy and abuse of court process to try him again after the plea bargain he entered with the EFCC.
He has been accused of stealing over N3 billion from Edo State’s treasury.
In 2006, looking to cash in on the lucrative but fraud-tainted fuel importation business, the ex-governor’s front and Managing Director of Skanga Energy and Marine Limited, a company formed by Mr. Igbinedion and his brother, Bright, in 1992, Christian Imoukhuede, approached the then Venezuelan Trade Consul to Nigeria, Enrique Arrundell, about the prospect of importing petrol, aviation fuel, and diesel from the South American country.
According to documents filed with a US District Court in New York, Mr. Arrundell advised Mr. Imoukhuede that the best way to get fuel was to go through a PDVSA approved agent.
Mr. Arrundell then introduced Mr. Imoukhuede to Arevenca, a fraudulent firm owned by alleged notorious Venezuelan conman, Francisco Gonzalez.
That meeting with Mr Gonzalez marked the beginning of Mr Igbinedion’s woes.
Mr. Igbinedion and his front, Mr. Imoukhuede claimed in court that they did due diligence checks on Arevenca through the Venezuelan embassy in Abuja. They claim that embassy officials confirmed Arevenca as a reputable Venezuelan business concern and the validated documents provided by Arevenca that supposedly showed a relationship with PDVSA.
But it has since turned out that Arevenca might be a complete fraud. PDVSA has since said in court that it has no records of any relationship with Arevenca.
Arevenca is a registered corporation under Venezuelan law but was most recently headquartered in Aruba; its subsidiaries are: Arevenca AKTM registered in British Virgin Islands; Arevenca SL is registered in Spain; and Arevenca Aruba Holding NV. Others are Arevenca Bank, Arevenca Foundation, Fly Aruba Suriname, Arevenca Mining and Arevenca Petroleum Company registered in offshore tax haven, Suriname. There is Arevenca Finances Holding registered in Switzerland and Arevenca Ivory Coast. Many of these subsidiaries are shell companies or exist only in names.
A Canadian-based freelance journalist, Steven Bodzin, who worked as an energy reporter in Venezuela and has written a number of exposés on Arevenca, revealed that Arevenca’s website is a repository of mind-numbing lies meant to hoodwink mostly unsuspecting international investors.
For instance, on its website, Arevenca claims to have a global refining capacity of 2.5 million barrels per day and plans to build a two million barrel per day in Ivory Coast. It also claims to have a fleet of 72 ships. However, the company with the highest refining capacity in the world as at September 2013, Reliance Jamnagar Refinery, India, has a refining capacity of only 1.24 million barrels per day.
In fact, Arevenca is not included in the top ten refineries in the world. The only Venezuela-based refinery in the top 10,Paraguana Refining Centre, belongs to PDVSA and has a processing capacity of just 955,000bpd.
And despite claiming to have 75 vessels, a PREMIUM TIMES search on Lloyds Ship Directories shows that Arevenca does not operate from any of Venezuelan’s 16 ports. There is also no proof that the company is building a two million barrel per day refinery in Ivory Coast as it claimed.
In October 2006, Mr. Imoukhuede, who was Mr. Igbinedion’s schoolmate, arrived at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas and was ushered directly into the VIP lounge and later given a luxury ride to the exquisite InterContinental Tamanaco, rated among the top three hotels in the country, where he had initial negotiation with Mr. Gonzalez and an unnamed Nigerian.
After the meeting, Skanga reached a tentative agreement to buy “petroleum products” from Arevenca. Arevenca also agreed to give Skanga the first right of refusal to buy its AGO (diesel), PMS (premium motor spirit) DPK (kerosene), Jet Al fuel, Bitumen and Fuel oil. The deal was to take off with a 35,000 metric tones of AGO for the first option and repeated frequency of about three cargoes monthly, according to Skanga Official statement.
Bank transfer documents show that Skanga paid $1.05 million of the $1.4 million cost of freight. According to answer provided by Skanga officials during interrogation in court, it made these payments ($580,000 and $470,000) based on the proof of certain “inducement documents which included an alleged PDVSA bill of lading.
After Skanga made these initial payments, it became trapped. The duping of the former government and his corrupt clan began in full swing.
Igbinedion goes to Caracas
In January 2007, four months before the expiration of his governorship term, Mr. Igbinedion travelled to Caracas, ostensibly on an official visit but actually the visit was to put finishing touches to the deal earlier reached by his front three months earlier.
According to the Bolivarian News Agency (ABN), he and his entourage were met by some of the influential “Chavista” politicians in the country, as supporters of the late Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chávez, are called: the Mayor of Central Caracas, Freddy Bernal, the Governor of Miranda, Diosdado Cabello, and Deputy Foreign Minister for Africa, Reinaldo Bolívar as well as other top Venezuelan government Officials and businessmen. It was an elaborated event accompanied by lavish photo op, expensive alcohol and dinner in the evening at the “Gran Melia Hotel, another top three luxury hotel in Venezuela according to luxury hotel reservations website, Five Star Alliance.
Mr. Igbinedion was handed the key to the city of Caracas and announced as the “Alcaldía de Libertador”, the honorary Mayor of the central Caracas borough of Libertador. He also held a meeting with top officials of the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry at their headquarters, the Yellow House.
But the whole fanfare was a grand charade and part of a well orchestrated confidence trick put together by some of the most devious conmen in Latin America.
It appears that Mr. Gonzalez received an intensive course on Nigerian niceties. Emails from Mr. Arrundell and Gonzalez to Mr. Igbinedion have that uniquely Nigerian informality. Rather than write in a formal manner as one would have expected in a multi-million dollar deal, they addressed Mr. Igbinedion as “My brother Lucky” or “Dear brother Lucky.”
One letter by Mr. Gonzalez, filled with grammatical errors, reads:
Dear brother lucky
I already send the dignity signed invoice. You know what this mean. Nobody do this, but I always honored my word, agins all the logical and normal status. I prefer died that do not honored my word. This is another demonstration that I am a honor man. That mean that the product is yours. I trust you like a brother I hope you do not let me down. I do not want disappoint you, I hope you do not disappoint me.
Best regards, You brother and friend
Francisco JAvier Gonzalez
The geniality of Mr. Gonzalez’s letters coupled with the grand reception, some would say deception, he got during his “official” visit to Caracas apparently made Mr. Igbinedion even more trusting of the Venezuelan gang.
Thief, money launderer is scammed
After a couple of other meetings later that year, Arevenca made Skanga a deal too good to be true: a consignment of 35,000 metric tonnes of diesel will be sent to Skanga. All it needed to do was to prepay the charges for delivery and complete the full payment for the delivery in three months.
Mr. Igbinedion could not believe his luck. Skanga transferred $19.6 million more to Arevenca’s Swiss bank account as freight charges and partial payment for two consignments of Petrol and diesel aboard two vessels named “Digniti” and “Ventur.”
The vessels never arrived.
The Nigerian Port Authority said it does not have any record of “Digniti” or “Ventur” entering Nigerian waters at the time it was billed to arrive. In fact, PREMIUM TIMES investigation reveals that there are no vessels named “Dignitii” or “Ventur”. Searches on Lloyds directories and other ship directories show that the ship don’t exist anywhere in the world.
All efforts made to consult the Venezuelan embassy to confirm the extent to which Mr. Arrundell, who has been posted out the country, was involved in the scam was unsuccessful. The embassy’s phone number seems to be out of order and email were returned as undelivered.
Mr. Imoukhuede declined to comment when contacted by PREMIUM TIMES. He explained that since the matter is in court, Skanga’s lawyer was in best position to make any public comment.
“You know the case is in court. I don’t think I am at ease to talk about it. I would have to talk to the lawyer. I can’t make any comment. The Nigerian legal system is different the American system. The best thing is to talk to Femi Salu,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The remaining parts in this series will look at courtroom intrigues; how two of Igbinedion’s American counsel abandoned the case due to his inability to pay their retainer.
A part will look at the role played by MRS Oil Nigeria Limited plus interesting revelations in court while another will take a look at the role of the Venezuelan authorities in the entire scam.