Koreatown Lawyer Charged with Money Laundering, Tax Evasion and Obstructing Probe of $2.1 Million Payment from Swiss Oil Company

 

January 25, 2024

A federal grand jury has indicted a Koreatown lawyer with multiple felonies arising from an alleged $2.1 million bribe, which he received while serving as an officer of Nigeria's state-owned oil company in connection with negotiating favorable drilling rights for a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned oil company, the Justice Department announced today.

Paulinus Iheanacho Okoronkwo, 67, of Valencia, who practices immigration and personal injury law out of an office in Koreatown, was charged in a five-count indictment returned on Wednesday.

Okoronkwo is charged with three counts of engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity, one count of tax evasion, and one count of obstruction of justice.

He is expected to be arraigned in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles in the coming weeks.

According to the indictment, Okoronkwo, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria, was a foreign official who served as the general manager of the upstream division of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. (NNPC), a state-owned company through which Nigeria's government developed that nation's fossil fuel and natural gas reserves, including through partnerships with foreign oil companies. In this role, Okoronkwo owed a fiduciary duty to the NNPC and the Nigerian people and was a public official.

In October 2015, Addax Petroleum, a Switzerland-based subsidiary of Sinopec, a Chinese state-owned petroleum, gas, and petrochemical conglomerate, wired a payment of $2,105,263 to an Interest on Lawyers' Trust Account (IOLTA) in the name of Okoronkwo's Los Angeles law firm, purportedly for his work as a consultant who negotiated and completed a settlement agreement with the NNPC with respect to Addax's drilling rights in Nigeria. According to the indictment, Addax calculated that it stood to lose billions of dollars if its favorable drilling rights were not secured.

The engagement letter that Addax signed that month with Okoronkwo's law office – with a fake address in Lagos, Nigeria – allegedly was a ruse intended to conceal the fact that its payment to Okoronkwo was a bribe in exchange for his influence in securing more favorable financial terms relating to its crude oil drilling in Nigeria.

According to the indictment, to conceal the illegal bribery scheme, Addax falsely characterized the $2.1 million payment as a payment for legal services, lied to an auditor about the payment, and fired an executive who questioned the payment's propriety. To create the false impression that the bribe payment constituted client funds, Okoronkwo allegedly received the payment in his law firm's IOLTA.

In November 2017, Okoronkwo allegedly used $983,200 of the illegally obtained funds to purchase a house in Valencia.

In addition to money laundering, Okoronkwo is charged with tax evasion for allegedly omitting the $2.1 million bribe payment from his 2015 federal income tax return. He is also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to investigators when interviewed in June 2022.

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.

If convicted of all charges, Okoronkwo would face a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison for each money laundering count, 10 years in federal prison for the obstruction of justice count, and five years in federal prison for the tax evasion count.

The FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation are investigating this case. The Justice Department's Office of International Affairs provided assistance.

Assistant United States Attorney Alexander B. Schwab of the Corporate and Securities Fraud Strike Force is prosecuting this case.

 

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