Abidemi Rufai aide on special duties to Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State has been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States for his role in a $650 million (N312 billion) employment fraud.
The Seattle Times reported that Mr Rufai was arrested in New York on Friday as he attempted to flee the country.
Rufai, who has lived in Lekki, Nigeria – appeared in federal court Saturday on charges that he used the identities of more than 100 Washington residents to steal more than $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington state Employment Security Department during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
“This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud,” said Tessa Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, in a statement Monday.
Rufai, 42, who currently serves as Governor Abiodun’s top aide on special duties was represented by an assistant federal public defender at Saturday’s hearing
He is also scheduled for a detention hearing Wednesday, as the case will be prosecuted in federal court in Tacoma.
The U.S. complaint against Mr Rufai gave insight into how the pandemic-related fraud was carried out, noting that most of the fraudulent claims that hit the ESD were likely filed outside the U.S.
Mr Rufai’s arrest came about a year after the ESD temporarily suspended unemployment benefit payments.
The U.S. government discovered that criminals used stolen social security numbers to file for federal and state unemployment benefits payments.
Mr Rufai was found using the alias Sandy Tang linked to possible unemployment programmes fraud in Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Federal investigators identified Mr Rufai through a single Gmail account which he used to file 102 claims for unemployment benefits, using stolen personal identities of real Washington residents.
The complaint noted that in January, Google was issued a warrant from a federal court, allowing investigators to search Mr Rufai’s Gmail account.
The investigation revealed over 1,000 emails from the ESD and about 100 emails from other states’ unemployment systems, and from Green Dot, an online payment system reportedly used for stolen unemployment benefits.
Emails containing bank and credit card numbers, birth dates and other personal identifying information, images of driver’s licences, and “a very large volume” of tax returns of U.S. taxpayers were also found in Mr Rufai’s possession.
The recovery phone number listed to Mr Rufai’s Google account was a Nigerian number matching his 2019 U.S. visa application, and pictures matching Mr Rufai’s physical appearance in his 2019 visa application were seen in the linked Google Drive account.
He faces up to 30 years in jail for wire fraud “in connection to a presidentially declared disaster or emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”