N25.7bn Theft: Court Dismisses Atuche’s Application Seeking Dismissal of Charges

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Justice Lateefa Okuunu of an Ikeja High Court Monday dismissed the application filed by former Managing Director of Bank PHB, Mr. Francis Atuche and his wife, Elizabeth challenging the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the N27.5 billion theft charges preferred against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).  
The Atuches in the application dated November 29 and brought pursuant to Sections 6(6), 230-248, 270 to 274 and 287(2) of the constitution had asked the court to dismiss the charges based on a Lagos Court of Appeal's judgment delivered on November 21, 2013, which struck out a similar theft charges pending before an Ikeja High Court against former Managing Director of FinBank, Okey Nwosu.
The Atuches are standing trial alongside the former Chief Financial Officer of the bank, Ugo Anyanwu, over allegations of stealing N27.5 billion belonging to the bank.
Atuche and his wife had asked an Ikeja High Court presided over by Justice Lateefa Okunnu to decline jurisdiction to continue to entertain the 27 count-charge before it because it revolves around the issue of acquisition of shares.
He also argued that the control of capital issue i.e shares is item 12 on the Exclusive Legislative list of the 1999 constitution and same exclusive to the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court by virtue of Section 251(1) of the 1999 constitution and section 7 (3) of the Federal High Court Act, 2004 Cap F12.
But the EFCC in their notice of preliminary objection to the motion filed by Kemi Pinheiro (SAN) urged the court to dismiss the application for being scandalous, frivolous and vexatious.
The anti-graft agency in the motion filed December 3, also contended that the plaintiffs were gambling with the process of the court contrary to the Supreme Court decision in Abubakar v. Yar'Adua (2008) 4 NWLR (Pt.1120).
EFCC therefore urged the court to dismiss the motion being vexatious and abuse of court process.
But Justice Okunnu in her short ruling after listening to the arguments of the parties, failed to grant Atuche’s application for dismissal of the charge on the grounds that it will amount to pre-empting the decision of the Court of Appeal in an appeal filed by Atuche on June 22, 2011, in which he had challenged the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the charge.
According to Okunnu, granting such application will amount to judicial rascality and therefore opted to continue with the trial pending the determination of Atuche's appeal at the Court of Appeal on the same issue of jurisdiction.
The judge subsequently adjourned till March 10, 2014 for continuation of trial.
Meanwhile, the same court yesterday adjourned the trial of former Managing Director of Finbank Plc, Mr. Okey Nwosu and three other directors of the bank, "sine die" (indefinitely).
The trial judge, Justice Lateefa Okunnu, adjourned the matter indefinitely following three separate judgments delivered by the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, on November 21,2013.
Nwosu and three directors of the bank, Dayo Famoroti Danjuma Ocholi and Agnes Ebubedike were charged to court for allegedly stealing N10.9 billion from the bank between September 2006 and November 2007.
The Court of Appeal had, in the judgments, struck out the theft charges preferred against defendants by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The appellate court held that the Lagos High Court lacked the jurisdiction to entertain the charges because they emanated from capital market transactions.
The court held that such a capital market-based case should be handled by the Federal High Court.
Ocholi's counsel, Mr. Lanre Ogunle (SAN), had earlier urged the court to dismiss the charge against his client because of the appeal court's judgments.
The EFCC counsel, Mr. Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), asked the court to therefore adjourn the matter indefinitely in the interest of justice.
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