In Defence of Paul Usoro SAN

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Paul Usoro SAN

I have read with utter disbelief and horror, Chidi Odinkalu’s recent hate campaign against Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN  using as peg the well-publicized gifts totaling N450,000.00 that were given to Honourable Justice James Agbadu-Fishim of the National Industrial Court by Mr. Usoro, in 3 (three) tranches of N250,000.00, N100,000.00 and N200,000.00 over a period of almost 8 (eight) months spanning August 2014 to March 2015. The circumstances of Mr. Usoro’s gifts to His Lordship has been fully set out and detailed in Mr. Usoro’s 3 (three) letters of 31 October 2016, 07 November 2016 and 23 November 2016 to the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission (“EFCC”) which are already in the public domain and require no regurgitation save to summarize, for the purposes of this writeup, the circumstances as follows:

Mr. Usoro and Justice Agbadu-Fishim  have been friends and were known to each other long before His Lordship joined the Bench.

Mr. Usoro does not generally handle or even directly supervise National Industrial Court (“NIC”) matters in PUC and that is because Mr. Usoro has competent and skilled colleagues within PUC who work on these matters in consequence whereof, those matters do not require his personal attendance and/or attention. In particular, prior to the EFCC enquiry in October 2016, Mr. Usoro had no knowledge of or visibility in the sole matter which our Firm has ever handled before Agbadu-Fishim J – NICN/PH/150/2014 (Olusegun Olalekan Osho v Access Bank Plc) [“PH/150”).

On 05 August 2014, about 5 months PRIOR to instructions on PH/150 from Access Bank Plc in December 2014, Mr. Usoro made the first gift of N250,000.00 to His Lordship. Only with the gift of clairvoyance – which Mr. Usoro does not possess – could Mr. Usoro have foreseen that PH/150, would be assigned to PUC as at the date when he made that first gift to Agbadu-Fishim J.

All the 3 (three) gifts were made by Mr. Usoro at the request of Agbadu-Fishim J and none was related to PH/150. These were requests based on longstanding friendship between Mr. Usoro and His Lordship and this fact is borne out by the text messages (which were analyzed by EFCC) sent by His Lordship to Mr. Usoro requesting for assistance. None of these messages remotely mentioned PH/150.

As at 24 March 2015 when the third and final gift of N200,000.00 was given by Mr. Usoro to Agabadu-Fishim J, Access Bank had agreed to pay PUC only N700,000.00 in full and final payment for handling PH/150 and no portion of the fees had been paid to the Firm. Even if Mr. Usoro was the type that offers bribes for anything (which he most definitely is not), it is rather preposterous to suggest that Mr. Usoro would have, as at the said date, decided to “bribe” Agabadu-Fishim J with N450,000.00 – about 65% of the then agreed fees – in a matter that was non-contentious and by no means in the league of the complex, headline and nationally acclaimed litigation that Mr. Usoro routinely handles..

Mr. Usoro pointedly, categorically and consistently disclaimed any suggestion that he bribed or wished “to induce Honorable Justice Agbadu-Fishim or any other judicial officer” and stated in his letters to EFCC that he “does not bribe or induce Judges” and “has never bribed or induced any Judge”.

As consistently highlighted by Mr. Usoro, “Rule 3 of Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers in its Paragraph F which was applicable at all times relevant to this issue permits judicial officers to accept ‘personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such extent and on such occasions as are recognized by custom”. All the gifts to Agbadu-Fishim “are recognized by custom” in all parts of Nigeria as occasions for such “personal gifts . . . from personal friends” to judicial officers – one of those illustrative occasions was the burial of Agbadu-Fishim J’s relative which Mr. Usoro could not attend but sent financial assistance in lieu.

As at the dates of Mr. Usoro’s letters to the EFCC, PH/150 had not progressed beyond being a part-heard matter and indeed was scheduled to commence de novo consequent upon Agbadu-Fishim J’s transfer from Enugu Division of the NIC. At no time material to this write-up had Agbadu-Fishim made any Ruling or Order in PH/150 other than routine adjournments. Absolutely nothing was done in the conduct of this matter by Agbadu-Fishim J that suggested, even remotely, the favoring of one party over the other and nobody, not even the opposing Counsel, has made any such suggestion. The Records of Proceedings are of course available for any and all to inspect and study. Even as we write, the Suit is yet to commence de novo.

The contents of Mr. Usoro’s letters to the EFCC have not been factually disputed howsoever by anyone. Mr Usoro has not been charged to court for any infraction whatsoever and yet, Chidi Odinkalu claims in his recent hate publications that “Paul Usoro is charged with having bribed James Agbadu-Fishim” and that Mr. Usoro admitted “to having bribed a judge”. These are wholly untrue statements. As if these mischievous publications were not sufficient, Chidi Odinkalu proceeded further to purportedly conduct a vox populi to determine whether “when a lawyer pays N450k to a judge before whom his firm has a case (without telling the other side) it’s called (a) charity; (b) bribe; or (c) donation” and according to him, the overwhelming majority of respondents classify it as “bribe”. That is a rather strange method for a lawyer to determine the commission of a crime.

In point of fact, Chidi Odinkalu does not need to conduct a poll to determine what constitutes bribe and the ingredients thereof and its applicability to the present matter. Section 18(b) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, Cap C31, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 (“ICPC Act”) could have easily and readily instructed him on what constitutes the ingredients of the offence of bribery, based on the specification thereat as follows:

18(b) “Any person who offers to any public officer, or being a public officer solicits, counsels or accepts any gratification as an inducement or a reward for . . . performing or abstaining from performing or aiding in procuring, expediting, delaying, hindering or preventing the performance of any official act . . . is, notwithstanding that the officer did not have the power, right or opportunity so to do, or that the inducement or reward was not in relation to the affairs of the public body, be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to five (5) years imprisonment with hard labor”.

Elementary criminal law teaches us, lawyers, based on the afore-quoted provision of the ICPC Act that there must be both mens rea and actus reus for there to be the criminal conduct of bribery. Surely, Chidi Odinkalu must be familiar with these terms and their import in the determination of criminal culpability. In this instance, where does Chidi Odinkalu locate the mens rea against Paul Usoro, SAN and where is the actus reus? Beyond his misrepresentations and mouthy allegations (which do not amount to proof or facts howsoever), does Chidi Odinkalu have any factual proof that Mr. Usoro offered to Agbadu-Fishim J “any gratification as an inducement or a reward for” doing absolutely anything, in the terms of Section 18(b) of the afore-quoted ICPC Act? If he does, he needs to present and publish such proof immediately or forever remain quiet.

Knowing that he cannot succeed in law, Chidi Odinkalu has feebly attempted to raise a moral question, suggesting that it is morally wrong for a Counsel to gift anything to a sitting Judge. As always, Chidi Odinkalu is also wrong on this point. By our Nigerian cultures and based on religious principles, we are all obliged to show humanity to persons in need, not least, our friends and relatives, be they judicial officers or not. We indeed abhor and reject the presumption that a judicial officer who receives a gift from a practicing lawyer is ipso facto bent and corrupt. Such a negative notion is wholly erroneous and abysmally unfair to our upright and hard-working judicial officers who, despite their offices, remain friends and relatives of practicing lawyers even as they dispense justice fairly to one and all.

Be that as it may, we note that Chidi Odinkalu’s primary platform for the publication of his hate message was not morality but law and it is on the basis of law that we assert most emphatically, based on the facts contained in Mr. Usoro’s letters to the EFCC that Mr. Usoro committed no wrong or infraction whatsoever, whether under the ICPC Act or under the extant Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers or under any other known law in Nigeria. If Chidi Odinkalu has facts that contradict the contents of Mr. Usoro’s letters, he is welcome to publish them but he must know that facts are sacred and also that vacuous allegations, no matter how vociferously mouthed and disseminated is in the nature of suspicion, which, no matter how strong, does not amount howsoever to proof. In this instance, there is even no basis for suspicion given the facts as earlier summarized by us in this write-up.

The mischievous intent and intellectual dishonesty in Chidi Odinkalu’s widely publicized hate campaign drips all over his publications and we would only highlight two illustrative instances thereof. First, until Mr. Usoro’s public dissemination of his letters to the EFCC, Chidi Odinkalu failed to hear Mr. Usoro’s side on this issue. One would have thought that, as a supposed human rights activist, Chidi is familiar with the principles of audi alteram partem which required that he, at the minimum, hear Mr. Usoro’s side before setting out on his hate mission. And we know for a fact that Chidi Odinkalu has Mr. Usoro’s contact details and could easily have reached him. So much for “human rights activism”.

Second, we invite you, our dear readers, to please, read again, the framing of Chidi Odinkalu’s vox populi question quoted above to wit “when a lawyer pays N450k to a judge before whom his firm has a case (without telling the other side) it’s called (a) charity; (b) bribe; or (c) donation”? Does the framing of that question inform the respondent or reader that when the first N250,000.00 (more than half of the quoted sum) was gifted by Mr. Usoro to Agbadu-Fishim J in August 2014, PUC had absolutely no matter before the Judge and that Agbadu-Fishim J and Mr. Usoro have been friends long before the Judge joined the Bench on which basis Mr. Usoro responded to Agbadu-Fishim J’s requests for assistance in the three instances in issue? No, it does not, even though, at the time of his vox populi conduct, Chidi Odinkalu had on hand Mr. Usoro’s 3 letters to the EFCC and was well aware of these facts. His omission of these fundamental details was clearly intentional and amounted to willful misrepresentation and distortion and manipulation of facts aimed at arriving at a pre-conceived notion, apart from showing total disrespect for the intellect of his readers. This, of course, is not to condone howsoever the use of unorthodox room-and-parlour vox populi methods to determine a purely and straightforwardly legal issue. Trained lawyers do not determine legal questions in that manner.

It finally remains to address the on-going arraignment of Agbadu-Fishim J before the Lagos State High Court. on several counts, all hinged on Section 82(a) of the Criminal Code Law of Lagos State No. 11 of 2011 which stipulates thus:

82(a) “Any public official who . . . enriches himself so as to have a significant increase in his assets that he cannot reasonably explain the increase, in relation to his lawful income . . . is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for seven years”.

Considering that this matter is sub judice, we would refrain from commenting thereon save to point out that (a) it is not a bribery charge; (b) Mr. Usoro is not a co-accused in this matter; and (c), as it relates to Mr. Usoro, His Lordship is required in this Charge to “reasonably explain” the monies that were gifted to him by Mr. Usoro, the circumstances of which are well set out in Mr. Usoro’s letters to the EFCC which is already in the public domain. Yes, Mr. Usoro is listed as a witness in those proceedings, but his evidence for the prosecution can only be in the terms of his 3 letters to the EFCC none of which remotely raises the specter of bribery.

Very finally, we want to thank all who have come to Mr. Usoro’s defense in this matter and to assure everyone that Mr. Usoro is an extremely hard-working lawyer who utilizes his God-given talents – and he is generously endowed by the Almighty in that regard even as we remain eternally grateful to Him for this – in the practice of his profession. The keys to his success are essentially God’s Supreme Grace, his hard-work and his intellect and all who know him – lawyers and non-lawyers alike – will readily attest to this. He therefore has no need or inclination to bribe and/or induce judicial officers or any other person in order to succeed in his practice of law.

Mr Munirudeen Liadi is lawyer working in Lagos. 

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