• Friday, July 19, 2024
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Targeted by US, labelled with fraud by media, Ping Express ex-CEO tells his story

‘Targeted prosecution’ by US, fraud accusations by media; Ping Express former CEO clears the air

Recently, when news platforms in Nigeria broke some stories of fintech companies with Nigerian ownership facing regulatory and legal cases in some countries, there was one in the U.S. concerning Ping Express, whose former CEO even got a jail sentence following a plea deal.

Shortly after news outlets had been running with this story, a press statement was sent, which seemed to be ‘backtracking’, yet not saying the guilty plea was changing. Are you guilty or not (as pleaded)? This was the question CALEB OJEWALE sought to get an answer to when an interview was later set up with ANSLEM OSHIONEBO, the company’s former CEO, who had to step down when the case began.
He would later narrate a story of frustration with an American judicial system that appeared to have targeted him because; he should have ‘known that Nigerians in Dallas commit international fraud’. This much he claims had even been said by some law enforcement officers (and on the record). With his education and having delivered seminars to others in the industry, he was supposed to know better.

His company pleaded guilty to having ineffective anti-money laundering policies, but was not indicted nor found guilty of fraud as had been reported by some publications, he says. The infractions he and the company were prosecuted for, and for which he has been sentenced to jail for 27 months, is something he says his competitors (other money transfer companies) have never been prosecuted for, even when there have been cases involving them. The banks where funds originated have also had no case to answer. So, what changed and why him? Excerpts:

When I received your press statement, it seemed to me a bit like backtracking on what we heard previously; which was that your company pleaded guilty. First, I need to be sure what really is going on; are you backtracking, or was there some miscommunication in the first instance?

Did we plead guilty? Yes, we pleaded guilty, because we have dragged this out for over three years and we had to make a calculated risk and take a decision after incurring a significant amount of legal costs. Overall it has been stifling and we are not like the big companies where this will happen and nobody can do anything.

But someone that reads in between the lines and sees what we pleaded guilty to, the question the person is going to ask is; what have we done that constitutes a criminal offence? What was written in the statement (by the US department of justice) is it a fair judgement or sentence based on history, and precedence? Those are the questions someone is going to ask himself, but did we plead guilty? Yes, to failure to maintain an effective (anti-money laundering) policy.

When we started this company back then, we knew there was a stigma against Nigerians and we did everything humanly possible to make sure we verified all the customers, and verify the funds came from their bank accounts

None of this represented or constituted a criminal offence. But we had to go in that direction. When this finally hit the press (in Nigeria) after a while, it was shocking that it became like the Chinese whispers where some prominent newspapers in Nigeria decided to twist the story completely and even quoted an amount.

Did we commit fraud? No. Conspire with anyone? No. The court records are there, even the limits that were being mentioned are our own internal limits, and clearly says it is the company’s policy. In the documents we filed in court, and several information we filed in the court, we said these limits are subject to manual review, and conditions.

So if you have a limit that is subject to manual review, and conditions, inherently it means there is no real limit, because you have to review manually and check. Which my team did a very good job of checking. Because for every customer that is there, they collected a significant amount of information from them. Was there a conspiracy? No, and that’s why that number was not a headline in the Department of Justice.

What exactly did you plead guilty to?

We pleaded guilty to having ineffective anti-money laundering policies.

Now, what has changed between the time you pleaded guilty and this public stance from you?

Everything I’ve said today or anything I’m saying are in the court records. We presented that information in the court and there for posterity for people to read and see. My competition is the banks.

There’s one very important factor I think everybody should understand. These customers sent money from their personal bank accounts, it is not like Mr A’s used Mr B’s bank account, rather, it came from his own personal bank, but his banks have not been held liable for ineffective policy. The bank that sent the money to his bank has not been held liable for ineffective policy. But I’m being held responsible for not knowing how he received the money in his bank account.

Did we commit fraud? No. Conspire with anyone? No. The court records are there

It is just like you ask me, look up is the sky blue, yes the sky is blue. Does that mean the sky is blue is an offence? That’s the question. It got to a stage where we had to plead guilty because we could not continue to fight the legal battle. We spent money.

But now if you ask me what has changed. The change is that I don’t work in the company again, but what they have decided to do or what I think they will do is to say, anybody whether you show your bank statement, or show contract or agreement, it doesn’t matter what you show, even if the money is coming from your bank accounts; you should be flagged, reported and called suspicious.

However, we don’t like the narrative where some media houses in Nigeria, have decided to choose to say we committed fraud or we are being charged for money laundering.

And every year you have my competition and the banks going through some of these issues, but history has not shown where the executives or the owners are held liable for what the company did.

Are you looking to change your plea in any way or that is a done deal?

At this point, in the U.S system, it is a little bit different. We presented the facts for the judge to see, and these are on the record. It is now left for someone to determine if it’s an offence that warrants the executives or owners to be held liable.

Why didn’t you test the American judicial system to the limits it is said to be popular for? It’s seen elsewhere in the world as the place where justice always finds its way so why didn’t you test the limits of the American judiciary and establish your case to the end instead of pleading guilty?

I don’t want to speak too much about the US criminal justice system, which has been the subject of campaigns significantly over the years. You may have read about that. There are tons and tons of information out there on how the US Judicial system is.

I’m not here to criticise it, but people can read more about the US criminal justice system and ask themselves what’s a calculated risk. I don’t have a personal opinion, but we felt that was the best decision after spending so much money on legal fees. We didn’t think it was in our best interest to continue fighting with our limited resources, so we just had to move on.

What does moving on entail now, especially with you feeling you shouldn’t be held liable as a former executive of the company?

Yes, that’s my personal opinion. But unfortunately, that’s different from what has happened, so my personal feelings do not really matter.

What I mean by moving on is that I prefer to take in the sentence so that I can spend enough time with my family, than keep fighting these for five years, six years, eight years, and don’t have time for my family, especially when I don’t have the resources.

Read also: How bureaux de change aid bank fraud in Nigeria

When does your sentence take effect?

That has taken effect, it happened in May. The one for the company is in December. The agreement is just probation; the company cannot be jailed, so the company is going for probation but the owners are going to jail.

And one thing that I think may be important to note is that there are no losses, so there’s no restitution, nobody lost money. Otherwise, there would have been restitution that would say I will pay restitution back to the people that lost money.

There was mention of some money that came from some romance scam of sorts, and they claim was moved through Ping to Nigeria. Isn’t that what the prosecutors factored in, in making the allegations?

Well, they factored that in and they factored in my education, the fact that I should have known them, and I don’t know how I should have. They factored in the fact that they moved money through Ping, but as I said, these funds came from their personal bank accounts.

They did not use another person’s bank account. The money came from Mr A’s bank account to Mr B’s bank account who now becomes a customer of the company. We are significantly far removed from the transaction. So, his bank did not flag it. The bank that sent the money to him did not notice it, but I was being held liable for it.

Think of going to a Hotel, you pay with PoS and then someone says the owner of the PoS should know how you received the money in your bank account, and then be held liable for money you spent from your account.

Then there’s something else that I think needs some clarification. So they had also mentioned that the company was licensed to do money transfers but not currency conversion, something in that line. How much did that weigh-in on your case?

That is what is said in that press release which is factually inaccurate, and I can boldly beat my chest. None of my competition, whether it’s WorldRemit, WesterUnion, Moneygram, has a currency exchange licence, so we did not need a currency exchange licence.

We had a licence federally, and we are licensed in Texas. We have some licences in other places and have some court rulings that said we didn’t need to have a licence in all states we didn’t have offices. We had an office in one state and we have a license in that state, where we also have a federal licence. On the currency exchange, no, we did not need currency exchange and it’s clear. None of my competitors has a currency licence, for that, I can beat my chest. We talked about it before and the government agreed that yes we didn’t need it, so I was surprised somebody wrote it in the press release.

What prompted this interview was some of the thoughts I saw expressed in that release, which I thought should be validated personally. It seemed a lot in the line of ‘this is a targeted prosecution of sorts’, and so I’m putting it to you now, is that what this is?

I don’t think I can personally say the minds of other people but we are putting the facts out there and you can draw your conclusions from the facts.

I do not know why the Nigerian media here, especially two very prominent newspapers would say ‘held for money laundering’, lie and change the story. Do I know their motive? No. Do I know why they did it? No. But does that mean it’s true, it’s not true.

One of my kids lost his confidence because he looked up to me as someone that worked so hard, and he could not imagine this was happening, from someone who is always preaching integrity and trust and honesty to him

I can’t say I know the minds of people nor do I want to say I’m being targeted. But what I know is that the banks of those customers have not been prosecuted. What I know is my competitors had similar issues, and they were never ever prosecuted whether the companies or the directors, none.

Do you think this happened because you are a Nigerian company?

As I said, I will let you draw your conclusions.

The reason I’m asking is that the press release pretty much said that. And so I needed to be sure if you are saying ‘this is happening because we are Nigerians and we’re getting this treatment because of that’.

Even though we may have that impression or belief, I would say, on record, the cops told me that I should know all these Nigerian customers because I should have known all Nigerians. Did they say that? Yes, that’s on record.

Did I see email communications within the investigators that said, these Nigerians in Dallas are involved in international scams, yes, I saw that even though there was no proof of it. But should I reach a conclusion from there, I’ll leave it up to you to reach a conclusion but these are facts and records that we saw. Clearly yes, we believe we were treated unfairly.

When does the prison sentence take off? How does it work?

Well, generally, you turn yourself in, there’s what you call self-reporting. We are still working on that.

As you prepare to turn yourself in for the sentence to start, what are your thoughts right now and your family, how are they taking it?

We’ve been on it for three years, the embarrassment, the challenges, the fact that our funds were seized so that we could not afford lawyers. The fact that we’ve been on this for three years and that my kids have been dealing with this challenge for too long.

My mom has also been dealing well with the challenge. She just had surgery on her knee when this happened and was made to sit on the grass for three hours while they were searching my house; they took all my devices, phones, and computers.

The kids have gone through this trauma for three years. So do I want to subject them to another trauma for five, or eight years, 10 years? No. That is part of the reason why we had to bring closure to it. So everybody had gone through the trauma for a period of time, so we are technically over the shock.

The thing that hit the news media and changing the narratives has put another strain of burden on them, because people are saying, ‘Oh, I read this or I didn’t know that. This newspaper said they committed fraud, money laundering etc’. It has put a lot of pressure because people are calling to confirm. But no, there’s no money laundering here.

Think of going to a Hotel, you pay with PoS and then someone says the owner of the PoS should know how you received the money in your bank account, and then held liable for money you spent from your account

When we started this company back then, we knew there was a stigma against Nigerians and we did everything humanly possible to make sure we verified all the customers, and verify the funds came from their bank accounts. Unfortunately now I’m being held that I should have known that the funds that came into their bank accounts were stolen from somewhere. People I didn’t know, we purposely choose to make people use their debit cards and we verify the funds came from their bank account. Now we’re being held to the second standard, that we should have known where they got their money from.

So you mentioned your children earlier, how old were they when this whole thing started?

It started when the kids were about 10. Now they are 13, almost 14 now.

How many children?

Three kids, they are triplets.

How has this affected your family and how are they going to cope with the possibility of you going away for some time?

Well, those are some of the things that we have to put together. We have to be able to pay our bills, to pay the mortgage. My kids are athletes so we have to find a way to work with their coaches that will pick them up and drop them off for their games.

Is it going to be challenging? Yes. But with God on our side, we will survive.

Has it affected my kids? Yes. One of my kids lost his confidence because he looked up to me as someone that worked so hard, and he could not imagine this was happening, from someone who is always preaching integrity and trust and honesty to him. So as a result of that he has to go to a special school to help his confidence level. Has it been tough? Yes. But I trust in God that God will do it, we’ll survive and that’s all I can say.

Even though you’ve had this plea, is there any chance of judicial review?

Yes, there is a lot that can be done. Anything can happen, but I think the power still lies with the US government, and the US judiciary system. Can sentences be changed? Yes. Can they be reduced? Yes. Are they going to do this in this case? I cannot read minds. I don’t know what will happen.

Any other thoughts you’d like to add?

One of the important things is that some of these customers mentioned in that article, I want to say clearly, and factually, that they used competition (other money transfer companies) during the same time and those companies were not held liable. This was in the discovery document and we have the information, so I have proof to support it.

Do you think there’s anything that could have made a difference? Why did they decide to hold on to you and ignore ‘the others’?

Do I have a perception that because we’re Nigerians, yes. Do I have a perception that there is a bar too high for us? Yes. Even though this is not a very good reference, Hushpuppi wired money from bank accounts. Can you tell me one bank that was being held liable?

Now, we are saying you use your debit card, and I don’t even have access to your bank account. The point is, did we verify the customers and their transactions, yes, we did. Now, do we have the tools to know how they received the money in their bank account? No, we don’t have those tools. Do those tools exist? No, those tools just don’t exist.

I have not seen any tool that exists today that will tell you how somebody received money in their bank account. We are being held liable for not knowing that and I’m being held liable because of my qualification and education that I should have known.

Overall, this case is all about holding me liable for what they think I should have known or done versus what I did. But, did I know them? No. Conspire with them? No. Know that they did fraud, No? Do I have tools to know they can do it? No.

But I am being held that I should have known all those things, yet some of these customers also used other competition.

The only thing I ask myself; what’s the difference. And the only difference was that they presented all my lectures and seminars to other money transfer companies, that this guy spoke at a seminar in 2017/18/19, he knows a lot, and he should have known because that was what was held against me. I cannot overemphasise that the funds came from the customers’ bank accounts.