The chairman of Nigerian airline Air Peace has been indicted by the United States Department of Justice for fraud and money laundering.
The DoJ said in a statement on Friday that Onyema moved more than $20 million from Nigeria through United States bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes.
Air Peace international airline’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha,was also charged “with bank fraud and committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.”
Onyema recently became a national hero when he volunteered to use his plane to bring home Nigerian victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa free of charge.
His action earned widespread commendations including from the Nigerian government.
His airline less than a fortnight ago signed a contract with Embraer for the purchase of three E195-E2s aircraft worth USD 212.6 million and also expand the terms of purchase in the original contract signed with the aircraft manufacturer in April.
But the US authorities said some of Onyema’s purchases “were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.”
“Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.
“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.”
The indictment letter said after founding Air Peace, Onyeama travelled to the United States and purchased multiple airplanes for the airline but over $3 million of the funds used to purchase the aircraft allegedly came from bank accounts for Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited, and Every Child Limited.
In May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema.
The letters of credit were purported to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace.
The DoJ said the letters were supported by documents such as purchase agreements, bills of sale, and appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.
However, the Justice Department said the supporting documents were fake — Springfield Aviation Company LLC, which is owned by Onyema and managed by a person with no connection to the aviation business, never owned the aircraft, and the company that allegedly drafted the appraisals did not exist.
Eghagha allegedly participated in this scheme as well, directing the Springfield Aviation manager to sign and send false documents to banks and even using the manager’s identity to further the fraud.
After Onyema received the money in the United States, he allegedly laundered over $16 million of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts.
“Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud,” Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division said.
“He corrupted the U.S. banking system, but his trail of deceit and trickery came to a skidding halt. DEA would like to thank the many law enforcement partners and the subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”
“Onyema setup various innocent-sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam,” said acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama.”