Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, has been charged with bank fraud and money laundering for moving over $20m from Nigeria through United States bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes.
Also indicted in the fraud is Air Peace’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, who is accused of committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.
In a statement by US Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Georgia, on Friday, the airline’s founder was accused of using his status to carry out the fraud.
“Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud,” said US Attorney, Byung J. “BJay” Pak.
“We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business,” he added.
Commenting on the development, the statement quoted Robert J. Murphy, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division, as saying, “Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud.
“He corrupted the US 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 US Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”
Also speaking on the issue, acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama, said, “Onyema setup various innocent-sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.
“I’m proud to be part of a team of law enforcement agencies that come together to identify and attack criminals that attempt to profit from the exploitation of our nation’s financial systems.”
According to the statement, Onyema, starting from 2010, began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts.
Between 2010 and 2018, over $44.9m was allegedly transferred into his Atlanta-based accounts from foreign sources.
In years following the establishment of Air Peace, Onyema travelled to the United States and purchased multiple airplanes for the airline.
However, over $3m 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.
Beginning in approximately May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20m into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema.
The letters of credit were purportedly to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace.
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 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 $16m of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts.
Onyema and Eghagha were indicted on November 19, 2019 on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud, and three counts of credit application fraud.
Additionally, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, and Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft.
In a statement, Onyema said, “I confirm to you that all allegations are false and are in no way in line with my character as a person and as a business man whose only aim has been to build Nigeria and improve wellbeing.
“As the press statement clearly stated, these are indictments that only contain charges.
“I am innocent of all charges and the US government will find no dirt on me because I have never conducted business with any illegalities.
“I never laundered money in my life, neither have I committed bank fraud anywhere in the world. Every Kobo I transferred to the US for aircraft purchase went through the Central Bank of Nigeria LC regime and all were used for the same purpose.
“The American companies that received the funds are still in business. I never took a penny from any US bank or Nigerian bank.
“I am willing to defend my innocence in the US courts.