Nigerian official charged in Washington state unemployment scam won’t be freed on bail

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Abidemi Rufai, a Nigerian citizen, is accused of stealing more than $350,000 in jobless benefits as part of Washington state’s $650 million unemployment fraud. (Facebook)

Abidemi Rufai, the Nigerian government official arrested last month in connection with Washington state’s $650 million unemployment fraud, will remain in jail until his trial, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle of Tacoma agreed with federal prosecutors that Rufai represented a flight risk and reversed an earlier order granting him pretrial release.

The ruling came just two days after another Nigerian citizen was charged with a role in the same fraud.

Rufai, 42, of Lekki, Nigeria, was arrested May 14 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport as he prepared to fly first class to Nigeria by way of Amsterdam, according to federal law enforcement officials.

Rufai was charged after allegedly stealing more than $350,000 in jobless benefits from the Washington state Employment Security Department last year and trying to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $1.6 million. Before his arrest, Rufai served as a senior special assistant on housing in the Nigerian state of Ogun, but he’s since been suspended. 

On May 21, a federal judge in New York ruled that Rufai could be released before trial on a $300,000 “surety” bond, but delayed the release to let federal prosecutors appeal.

In his decision Friday, Settle found that the “defendant poses a serious risk of nonappearance.”

Settle ordered that Rufai, who is in detention in New York, be transported by federal marshals to Washington for trial, which is set for Aug. 31.

Tacoma attorney Lance Hester, one of Rufai’s lawyers, said Rufai could ask the court to reconsider Friday’s ruling if there were changes in his circumstances.

Federal officials have called Rufai the first “significant” arrest related to Washington’s fraud. The case has shed new light on the way criminals were able to file bogus unemployment claims in dozens of states.

Massive Washington unemployment fraud investigation nabs another suspect

Notably, Rufai allegedly employed a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, that let him use a single email account to file multiple unemployment claims in Washington and elsewhere. The claims were allegedly filed using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data.

That same technique was allegedly used by Chukwuemeka Onyegbula, a 38-year-old IT engineer at a Nigerian oil company, to steal roughly $290,000 in unemployment insurance benefits from Washington and other states, and around $50,000 in federal disaster loans, according to an indictment returned Wednesday in federal district court in Tacoma.

Prosecutors have not suggested a link between the two men.

Friday’s ruling was the latest in a legal roller coaster ride for Rufai.

Rufai initially asked a New York federal judge to be released into the custody of his brother, who is an attorney in New York, according to federal prosecutors and Rufai’s attorney.

That proposal collapsed May 19 after Rufai’s brother told a court he could not afford the $300,000 surety bond required to ensure that Rufai appeared for his trial.

On May 21, a judge ruled that Rufai could instead be released into the custody of a New York state resident whom Rufai characterized as a family friend.

But federal prosecutors subsequently raised questions about Rufai’s finances and his relationship with the proposed custodian.

Rufai had initially claimed to have $16,000 in assets, according to prosecutors. But during a subsequent phone call between Rufai and his brother, Rufai allegedly acknowledged being able to cover the $300,000 bond, prosecutors said.

The phone call, which was recorded, also suggested that Rufai was not well-acquainted with the proposed custodian, prosecutors said.

In Friday’s order, Settle concluded that “no condition or combination of conditions can reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance as required.”

Paul Roberts: proberts@seattletimes.com; .