By Yemi Ajayi in Lagos, Ike Abonyi, Onwuka Nzeshi and Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
The full details of the $3 million bribery scandal involving members of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on the Fuel Subsidy probe were revealed yesterday, as one of the major actors in the scandal has opened up on what transpired.
In an exclusive interview with THISDAY, chairman, Zenon Petroleum & Gas Ltd, Mr. Femi Otedola, who hitherto was suspected of being behind the $3 million bribery scandal, blew the lid on what transpired and how chairman of the ad-hoc committee, Hon. Farouk Lawan, and the secretary of the committee, Mr. Boniface Emenalo, had collected $620,000 from him in a sting operation masterminded by the security agencies.
The amount was part payment for the $3 million, which he alleged Lawan had demanded from him to exonerate Zenon Oil from the ad-hoc committee’s report.
As the scandal unfolds, it was learnt that operatives of the State Security Services have sent a video recording of the incident to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for further scrutiny and action.
Otedola, who was opening up on the issue for the first time, narrated how Lawan at the outset of the probe had approached him to get some insight into the workings of the downstream oil and gas sector.
Otedola said he obliged him and ensured that his managing directors of Forte Oil Plc and Zenon Oil appeared at the subsidy probe during its public hearing after both companies had been invited by the committee.
During the probe, he said the committee was informed in no uncertain terms that Zenon does not and has never made claims for subsidy payments from the federal government, as the company was engaged solely in the importation of diesel, a product that is not subsidised.
Zenon’s managing director, Mr. Kanmi Kareem Otaru, during the probe had denied that the company had anything to do with the subsidy regime. He told the committee, “For the avoidance of doubt Zenon never participated or benefited from the subsidy scheme or Petroleum Support Fund (PSF).”
According to him, going by the Act which established the PSF scheme, “Zenon couldn’t participate in it because we don’t have a network of PMS retail outlets which was one of the key criteria beneficiaries must meet and as such we are not qualified to participate to draw from subsidy payments on PMS. So we never collected as records will show.”
Irrespective of the clarification made at the hearing, Otedola said Lawan still approached him a few days before the report was to be tabled on April 18, 2012 before the House of Representatives, demanding money so that Zenon’s name will be kept out of the report.
“When this happened, I was very angry and reminded him that Zenon has never participated in the subsidy scheme and that it would be criminal to rope in the company for something it did not do.
“But Lawan responded, stating that several other marketers were playing ball and had offered the members of the committee large sums of money to ensure that their companies’ names were not published in the report,” he added.
Otedola, said initially he balked at Lawan’s attempt to extort money from him and told the legislator that he would not pay up, as Zenon had not committed any crime.
“Then a day before the report was to be submitted, Lawan called again, informing me that Zenon’s name had been included in the report.
“I, of course, was very angry and asked him to desist from his course of action, but Lawan insisted that I must pay up as other oil marketers had done before me.”
Otedola said he could not believe his eyes the next day when the report came out and Zenon’s name had been listed under the category of companies that had bought foreign exchange from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) but had not imported petrol.
The amount ascribed to Zenon in the report was $232,975,385.13. The report had recommended that Zenon and 14 other marketers that had bought the foreign exchange be referred to the anti-corruption agencies to determine what they used the monies for.
Otedola said at this point he again called Lawan demanding that Zenon’s name be removed from the list, as there was no way his company could have bought that volume of foreign exchange without importing products.
“I reminded him that the amount ascribed to Zenon was wrong as what the company bought was over $400 million for importation of products through the banks – Zenith, UBA and GTB – and that under Sanusi (CBN governor) there was no way anyone could have bought that quantity of foreign exchange and not imported the products having filled the Form M.
“Sanusi will simply clamp down on anyone who tries to pull that kind of stunt,” he said.
In spite of this, Otedola said Lawan still demanded that the members of the committee be given money in exchange for removing Zenon’s name from the report before it is considered in plenary by the entire House.
Otedola said he then asked how much would be required to make the committee happy, to which Lawan responded $3 million.
“I screamed at him, demanding to know why he was doing this to me. All he said was other marketers were paying up to keep their names out of the report so I should do likewise,” he said.
Otedola revealed that it was this point he decided to involve the security agencies to catch Lawan and his committee with their hands in the till.
According to him, “As a law-abiding citizen, I decided to involve the security agencies and they advised me to play along, which prompted me to offer to pay part of the money with the promise that I would pay the balance when my company’s name had been removed from the report.”
The security agencies, he disclosed, gave him serialised dollar bills for the sting job and there are call logs, video and audio recordings in the possession of the agencies to confirm all that had transpired between himself and Lawan.
He said on April 21, the Saturday before the plenary, Lawan came in person to his residence and collected $250,000 in cash, as the first instalment, “then the next Monday night he came and collected another $250,000.
“On Tuesday, at 9am, just before the House commenced seating, Boniface came and collected another $120,000.”
Otedola confirmed that during the sting, Lawan and Boniface collected a total of $620,000 in three instalments as part of the $3 million demanded from him.
He added that with the $620,000 that had been extorted by Lawan and the committee, during the plenary, Zenon’s name was removed from the list of companies that had bought foreign exchange but did not import products.
Otedola continued: “He (Lawan) now asked for the balance of $2.5 million, but when I told him that I had no money now that the money was in Lagos, he suggested that I should charter a plane to fly the money from Lagos to Abuja.”
Otedola stressed that his decision to get the law enforcement and security agencies involved stemmed from the fact that he had not broken any law, maintaining that as a law-abiding citizen, he was saddened by the fact that he was being blackmailed by of all people, members of the legislature.
“If you have information that an armed robber is come to raid your home, won’t you notify the police? So, that was the purpose of the sting operation.
“Besides, my integrity is paramount to me. I started selling petroleum products 14 years ago in drums and somebody who has never run a petrol station is trying to blackmail and extort money from me.
“If others (marketers) have paid money, maybe they are guilty. But I did not do anything wrong, so why should they extort money from me? As a law-abiding citizen, I had to involve the security agencies. Indeed, I’m very disappointed because I have worked hard to build my business.”
Insisting that he had nothing to hide or fear over what had happened, Otedola maintained if he was in the wrong he would not have involved the security agencies in the first instance.
In a reference to the strong denials made by Lawan since the scandal became public, Otedola stated, “When he (Lawan) demanded the bribe, I called the agencies. That is because I had nothing to hide. When the bribe was paid, why did he not call and report it to the agencies if he had nothing to.”
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