By Marcus Ikechukwu
The United States government has sentenced Abidemi Rufai to five years imprisonment for stealing more than $600,000 in pandemic relief benefits.
The convict Rufai, until his arrest in 2021, was an aide of Ogun State Governor, Dapo Abiodun.
His sentencing was sealed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington for crimes ranging from $350,763 in pandemic unemployment fraud to filing bogus federal tax returns and theft of federal disaster relief money.
He was found guilty for what the prosecutors described as “litany of scams” that took in more than $600,000 in public and private funds, including Washington unemployment benefits intended for pandemic victims.
Prosecutors had asked for nearly six years, along with restitution of $604,260 for multiple counts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for Rufai.
The Assistant U.S. Attorney, Cindy Chang, who handles COVID fraud for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said the sentence “sends a strong message that these foreign actors who are abroad cannot just simply hide anonymously behind keyboards and that they can be brought to justice in the United States.”
Rufai, one of the first suspects arrested in Washington’s $650 million unemployment fraud, was arrested in May 2021 at John F. Kennedy International Airport as he allegedly tried to fly back to Nigeria.
He served as an aide to Governor Abiodun before he was suspended following his arrest.
Among other crimes, Rufai was charged with using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data to file dozens of fake claims for pandemic unemployment benefits in Washington and other states.
Benefits from those claims were wired into bank accounts either controlled by Rufai or by accomplices known as “money mules”.
Rufai has a master’s degree and is politically connected in his home country, prosecutors said.
He had purported to run a sports betting company since 2016, his finances were opaque and his main source of income apparently was defrauding the U.S. Government.
He was known as a prolific political fundraiser, and in 2019, he ran unsuccessfully for Nigeria’s National Assembly, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cindy Chang and Seth Wilkinson wrote in a sentencing memo.
Between April and October 2020, Rufai used a cache of stolen identities — investigators found more than 20,000 of them, with birthdates and social security numbers in one of his email accounts — to file for pandemic-related benefits.
He applied with the workforce agencies of at least nine states, including Washington’s Employment Security Department, in the names of at least 224 Americans.
After returning to Nigeria in August 2020, Rufai was appointed as a special aide to Governor Abiodun.
He was featured in news magazines, photographed with a luxury Mercedes sport-utility vehicle he had purchased with stolen funds and had shipped to Nigeria.
Rufai later returned to the U.S., and on May 15, 2021 — just a day after prosecutors filed an amended complaint against him — he was arrested trying to leave the country on a business class flight.