SEATTLE – A Nigerian government official arrested in connection with Washington state’s $650 million unemployment fraud will remain in jail until his trial, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle of Tacoma agreed with federal prosecutors that Abidemi Rufai, 42, represented a flight risk and reversed an previous order granting him pretrial release, the Seattle Times reported.
Rufai, of Lekki, Nigeria, was arrested May 14 at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport as he prepared to fly to Nigeria by way of Amsterdam, federal authorities said.
Rufai was charged after allegedly stealing over $350,000 in jobless benefits from the Washington state Employment Security Department in 2020 and trying to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $1.6 million, authorities said.
Before his arrest, Rufai served as a senior special assistant on housing in the Nigerian state of Ogun, but he’s since been suspended.
A federal judge in New York in May ruled that Rufai could be released before trial on a $300,000 “surety” bond, but delayed the release to let federal prosecutors appeal.
In his decision Friday, Settle found that the “defendant poses a serious risk of nonappearance.”
Settle ordered that Rufai, who is in detention in New York, be transported by federal marshals to Washington for trial, which is set for Aug. 31. Tacoma attorney Lance Hester, one of Rufai’s lawyers, said Rufai could ask the court to reconsider Friday’s ruling if there were changes in his circumstances.
Federal officials have called Rufai’s case the first “significant” arrest related to Washington’s fraud.
Washington state was severely victimized by fraudulent claims for pandemic-related benefits. It likely paid out more than $647 million in such fraudulent claims, though $370 million was recovered, according to state officials.
Another lawyer for Rufai, Michael C. Barrows, has said his client “denies any involvement in these transactions.”
The case has shed light on how criminals were able to file bogus unemployment claims in dozens of states.
Rufai allegedly employed a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, that let him use a single email account to file multiple unemployment claims in Washington and elsewhere using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data.
That same technique was allegedly used by Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, a 38-year-old IT engineer at a Nigerian oil company, to steal roughly $290,000 in unemployment insurance benefits from Washington and other states, and around $50,000 in federal disaster loans, according to an indictment returned Wednesday in federal district court in Tacoma.
Prosecutors have not suggested a link between the two men. Court documents have not listed an attorney who might comment on Onyegbula’s behalf.
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