The United States’ Attorney’s Office has charged the Founder and Chairman, Air Peace Nigeria, Allen Onyema, with bank fraud and money laundering for moving more than $20 million from Nigeria through United States bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes.

Air Peace Founder, Allen Onyema
Air Peace Founder, Allen Onyema

Chief of Administration and Finance of the airline, Ejiroghene Eghagha, was also charged with bank fraud and committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.

Details: The Air Peace boss allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud.

U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, said, “We will diligently protect the integrity our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”

Commenting on the development, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division, Robert J. Murphy, said, “Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud. He corrupted the U.S. 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 U.S. Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”

Thomas J. Holloman, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office, explained that the case is a prime example of why IRS-CI seeks to partner and leverage its expertise in an effort to thwart those seeking to exploit the nation’s financial system.

He said, “With the importance of our banking system to the movement of money around the world, those attempting to use intricate schemes to commit bank fraud through the use of falsified documents and other means should know that the odds are now heavily stacked against them as law enforcement is combining its talents to protect the sanctity and integrity of the nation’s financial system.”

The acting Special Agent in Charge, Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama, alledged that the Air Peace boss set up various innocent-sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.

“I am 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.”

How it started, according to the US
U.S. Attorney Pak stated that  in 2010, Onyema began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts. Between 2010 and 2018, over $44.9 million was allegedly transferred into his Atlanta-based accounts from foreign sources.

After he founded Air Peace in 2013, he travelled to the United States and purchased multiple airplanes for the airline. However, over $3 million 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, which are his firms.

Around May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million 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.

Pak said, “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 $16 million of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts.”

However, efforts made by our analyst to get Air Peace to respond to the allegations were to no avail. Mail and messages sent were not addressed or responded to.

But it is important to note that the indictment only contains charges as defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

Currently, several agencies like Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Commerce, and Department of Treasury are investigating this case.

On the other hand, the  United States Consul General John Bray, had lauded the efforts of the airline on investing greatly in the future of the aviation industry during the signing ceremony for the sale of 10 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft to Air Peace, September 2018.

Bray said, “The U.S. government is committed to expanding economic engagement, trade and investment ties with Nigeria. This signing ceremony highlights another deal which will strengthen the bond between the United States and Nigeria”.

According to Boeing Sales Director Tolliver, the 737 MAX is the fastest-selling airplane in Boeing’s history, accumulating more than 4,700 orders from 102 customers worldwide.

He listed fuel efficiency and superior operating economics as some of the factors creating a strong demand for the 737 Max aircraft.

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