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Ex-Nigerian official pleads guilty to pandemic relief fraud

May 4, 2022 GMT

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A former Nigerian government official arrested in connection with massive fraud against Washington state’s pandemic relief efforts plead guilty Tuesday in federal court, prosecutors said.

Abidemi Rufai, 45, of Lekki, Nigeria, acknowledged in U.S. District Court in Tacoma that he used stolen identities to receive more than $350,000 in pandemic-related unemployment benefits from Washington state.

He also admitted earlier frauds: Since 2017, he had obtained identifying information for more than 20,000 Americans, submitted $2 million in claims for disaster relief and other federal benefits, and received more than $600,000, prosecutors said.

Rufai was the special assistant to the governor of Nigeria’s Ogun state when he was arrested at New York’s JFK Airport on his way to Nigeria in May 2021.

The case against him helped illustrate how Washington’s Employment Security Department had succumbed to widespread fraud — paying out some $650 million in bogus claims before recovering about $380 million — as it tried to distribute benefits designed to help people financially weather the pandemic.

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Rufai employed a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, that let him use a single email account, altered by the addition of periods to the address, to file multiple unemployment claims in Washington and elsewhere using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data.

Rufai faces up to 32 years in prison for wire fraud related to a presidentially declared disaster and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors agreed to recommend less than six years, Seattle U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said in a news release.

Rufai also agreed to pay restitution to the agencies he defrauded, though his ability to do that remained unclear.