US District Judge, Barbara Jacobs Rothstein, has ordered controversial Maryland lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye, to appear in court on July 12, 2013 for arguments on $6.2 million in financial damages being sought by the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC against him.
Earlier, the embassy’s attorney ruled out Mr. Ugwuonye’s argument that his trip to Nigeria had impeded his ability to defend himself in the lawsuit in which the embassy accused him of stealing $1.55 million in tax refunds that was due the embassy.
The embassy had asked the court to compel Mr. Ugwuonye to refund the $1.55 million he had received from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on the embassy’s behalf. The Nigerian-born lawyer represented the embassy in the sale of several real estate properties owned by the Nigerian government. The IRS subsequently sent the embassy a refund of $1.55 million, since Nigeria, as a sovereign entity, is exempt from paying taxes to the American government.
Instead of remitting the funds to the embassy’s account, Mr. Ugwuonye stole it, claiming in court filings that he took the money in lieu of other alleged debts owed him by the Nigerian government. Nigerian officials denied that the lawyer was being owed any outstanding fees. Besides, Judge Rothstein ruled in May that Mr. Ugwuonye had failed to provide proof that he was owed any fees.
Judge Rothstein had temporarily lifted her default judgments after Mr. Ugwuonye emailed the court claiming that his passport was “seized” by the Nigerian authorities. On June 14, the judge ruled that she would accept the email as Mr. Ugwuonye's motion opposing the default judgment. She then asked the embassy to respond to the defendant’s motion by June 24, 2013.
In its response, the Nigerian embassy’s attorney methodically listed Mr. Ugwuonye’s lies, showing proof that the defendant offered extensive interviews and wrote numerous articles as well as comments online during his stay in Nigeria even filed an appeal against the judgement from Nigeria and bragged about it. They argued that Mr. Ugwuonye was merely taking the court for granted.
In one of the documents provided as exhibits, Mr. Ugwuonye's comments was used against him. “In an ironic statement, Mr. Ugwuonye had stated that [w]ithout a doubt, the doctrine of necessity, particularly the Nigerian brand of it, is a lazy lawyer’s escape from a duty to justify the use of law on moral and value-based grounds. Similarly, the principles of effectiveness [were] worse, as something akin to no more than a thief telling his victim that he had effectively stolen from him and there was nothing he could about it.”
A source in Abuja said Mr. Ugwuonye’s allegation caught the attention of President Goodluck Jonathan, who saw it as an opportunity to open another flank in his running political battle with former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The source said Mr. Ugwuonye and some members of the Senate foreign services committee worked with elements in Mr. Jonathan’s camp to submit a petition that was given expedited hearing.
However, the strategy is unlikely to affect proceedings in the US where Judge Rothstein has scheduled hearings next week to determine what amount of damages the embassy may recover from Mr. Ugwuonye. Earlier, the embassy’s attorney had revealed that his clients would seek $6.2 million from Mr. Ugwuonye and his law firm as compensatory and punitive damages.
In a related event, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has also directed Mr. Ugwuonye to rectify his membership of the court and also to show cause why the court should not dismiss his appeal for lack of jurisdiction. His response to that appellate court is due on July 19, 2013. If Mr. Ugwuonye fails to provide the necessary documentation, his appeal may be thrown out for lack of prosecution.