Suspect in unemployment scam denied bail pending arrival in Washington

May 19, 2021, 11:40 AM | Updated: May 20, 2021, 10:57 am
Employment Security, audit reports, unemployment tax, unemployment suspect...
A sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

A suspect alleged to have played a role in a scam that saw nearly $650 million paid out in fraudulent unemployment claims will remain in custody pending his transportation to Western Washington to stand trial.

State Auditor responds to ESD’s claim that audit numbers are ‘inflated’

Abidemi Rufai, a Nigerian citizen who reportedly served as a government official in Ogun, Nigeria, was apprehended last Friday by authorities at John F. Kennedy Airport, and faces charges for stealing the identities of over 100 Washington residents, which he then allegedly used to file fraudulent claims with the Employment Security Department for benefits.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, a magistrate judge initially was set to release Rufai to his brother as a third party custodian, a decision that the DOJ was prepared to challenge.

“However, before the government needed to take that step, Mr. Rufai’s brother indicated he could not serve as the third party custodian,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Emily Langlie told KIRO Radio.

That will leave a detention order for Rufai in place indefinitely, “until such time as a future hearing is held here in the Western District,” Langlie clarified.

It’s unclear as to when Rufai will arrive in Washington, with “timing on prisoner transport up to the U.S. Marshal Service.”

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“We will only know the timing of the next hearing when the defendant arrives in the district,” Langlie said. “Sometimes that takes as long as two to three weeks.”

If convicted, Rufai could face up to 30 years in prison for wire fraud.

According to acting Washington U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman, more arrests are expected to come in the near future as well.

“This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud,” she said in a written release.

The decision no doubt came as a relief to federal attorneys, who were pushing for Rufai to be detained. Langlie said the U.S. Attorney’s Office considered Rufai a flight risk because of his alleged history of forging identification documents.

“Mr. Rufai is accused of fraud and using fraudulent information, fraudulent documents — it would be difficult to monitor that he was not trying to obtain a fraudulent passport, which would allow him to leave the country,” she said.

Court documents show that when Rufai was arrested at JFK, he was traveling with seven pieces of luggage, three smartphones, a Cartier watch, and was preparing to board a first-class flight.

“Even this partial financial picture makes clear that Rufai has significant financial assets sufficient to facilitate his flight,” the documents state.

If Rufai had been able to get back home, Langlie said it would have been all but impossible to extradite him.

“He was returning to his home country of Nigeria, where extradition would be difficult, in part, because he is a government official there,” Langlie said.

KIRO Radio’s Nicole Jennings contributed to this report. 

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Suspect in unemployment scam denied bail pending arrival in Washington