WA judge has until next week to decide if fraud suspect should be released on bail

May 25, 2021, 4:18 PM
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Federal attorneys in the Western District of Washington have appealed the release of the Nigerian national accused of defrauding Washington’s Employment Security Department in last year’s unemployment fraud attack — and now a Western District judge has until June 4 to make a decision on that appeal.

Last week, a different judge in the Eastern District of New York had decided to release Abidemi Rufai on $300,000 bail, pending the decision on the appeal. Rufai was to be released to the home of a family friend on Long Island. Until the appeal is decided, Rufai remains behind bars.

“The Western District of Washington believes that he needs to come out here and face these charges in the district where they’re filed,” said Emily Langlie, communication director at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

In addition to allegedly stealing more than $350,000 from Employment Security, Rufai is also accused of submitting fraudulent claims for FEMA disaster relief, the IRS, and the Small Business Administration, going back to 2017. Rufai is considered by investigators to be the first major player arrested in Washington’s unemployment fraud attack, in which criminals are estimated to have stolen at least $650 million.

Nigerian citizen arrested in unemployment fraud to be released on bail

Rufai’s travel documents were seized, and his movements, if he is released on bond, will be monitored with an ankle bracelet. He would also be forbidden from leaving the Eastern District of New York — or eventually, the Western District of Washington.

However, federal attorneys stated in their appeal that Rufai’s bail placement was a risky one, as the husband of Rufai’s would-be guardian had been convicted in 2014 of buying the stolen personal information of dozens of people and using it to commit fraud.

“We do not think it’s appropriate that someone who’s been accused of wire fraud would be released into a home where — of the couple, the two people living there — the male part of the couple has already been convicted federally of wire fraud,” Langlie said.

She explained that it is standard practice to keep someone released on bail away from former felons.

“Generally, when someone is going to be released on bond, one of the conditions you often see is that they are not to associate with people who have criminal histories,” Langlie said.

The appeal also noted that Rufai’s named custodian was identified by her bank “as a suspect in an email impersonation and money laundering scheme.”

Besides the concern of guardianship, the appeal stated that Rufai is an extreme flight risk for several reasons.

For one, Rufai was already attempting to go back to Nigeria, and presumably would have done so had he not been detained; he was arrested at New York City’s JFK International Airport on May 14 while attempting to board a flight back to Nigeria, by way of Amsterdam.

The appeal noted that Rufai has no clear ties to the Western District of Washington, and has just one family member living in the United States. In contrast, Rufai’s wife and children live in Nigeria, and he holds an appointed government position as senior special assistant to the governor of a Nigerian state. While he has been suspended from that position following his arrest, he has not been fired.

Additionally, Rufai allegedly has a history of forging identification documents, and prosecutors worry he could easily obtain a false passport. They noted that at the time of his arrest he held a first-class plane ticket and several other items of luxury, suggesting that he has the financial means of getting away.

“Rufai is experienced in obtaining and trafficking in stolen identities and identification documents. He has the skills and resources to produce fraudulent documents that would allow him to leave the country,” the attorneys wrote, adding, “Location monitoring will not guarantee Rufai’s appearance. A defendant determined to flee can simply remove his location monitoring device and disappear.”

Prosecutors believe that Rufai would be gone for good if he did get back to Nigeria, noting that it is hard enough to extradite ordinary Nigerian citizens, much less high-power government members.

“Extradition would be difficult — in part because he is a government official there,” Langlie told KIRO Radio last week.

If prosecutors get their way, Rufai will be transported to Seattle — though he could still be let out on bail once in Washington.

“Rather than have him released in New York, it’s our preference that the U.S. Marshals Service transport him to the Western District of Washington, and then he can have another bail release hearing here,” Langlie said.

She did not have a timeline on when that could happen, noting that, for security reasons, they don’t tend to find out ahead of time when a person is being transported by the Marshals.

Whatever the judge decides on the appeal, that decision could further be appealed by either side before it is considered final.

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WA judge has until next week to decide if fraud suspect should be released on bail