The United States government has charged the founder of Nigerian airline, Air Peace, Allen Onyema, with an alleged $20 million fraud and money laundering, the US Department of Justice, announced on Friday in a statement.

According to the indictment, Mr Onyema allegedly moved the funds from Nigeria through U.S. bank accounts using falsified documents in the purchase of airplanes. Charged alongside Mr Onyema is the airline’s chief of administration and finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, who was indicted for bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.

In a bid to expand its regional and local operations, in September 2018, Air Peace placed an order for 10 Boeing 737 Max 8 and earlier this year the airline purchased 10 brand new Embraer 195-E2 planes from Brazil in a deal said to be worth $212.6 million.

According to U.S. prosecutors, in 2010, Mr Onyema opened several bank accounts in the U.S. and moved over $44.9 million into the accounts domiciled at Atlanta. In May 2016, Mr Onyema alongside Mr Eghagha, prosecutors said, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to transfer more than $20 million into the bank accounts. The letters were used to fund the purchase of five Boeing 737 passenger planes. Prosecutors, however, said the letters were accompanied by fake supporting 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.

The investigators from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Treasury claimed that “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,” the statement claimed.

“Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud,” said Byung Pak, a US attorney

“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,” Mr Pak added.

“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,” Robert Murphy, the special agent in charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division.

“This 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 our nation’s financial system,” added Thomas J. Holloman, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office.

“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,” he said.

“Onyema setup various innocent sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam,” said acting special agent in charge, Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama. “I’m 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.”

The Department of Justice, however, reminded the public that “the indictment only contains charges. The 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.”

Mr Onyema recently endeared himself to many Nigerians when his airline helped in evacuating hundreds of Nigerians caught in recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

In the heat of xenophobic attacks in September, his airline offered free travel to Nigerians willing to return to the country after several Nigerian businesses and nationals were attacked in South Africa.

He was lauded for the initiative and was honoured by the National Assembly for his patriotic effort.

Neither Mr Onyema nor airline’s spokesperson could be reached for comment at the time of publication. The story will be updated with their comments as soon as we could reach them.

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