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Was This Airline CEO Really Just a Grifter?

Was This Airline CEO Really Just a Grifter?
Jackie Reddy

The founder of a private Nigerian airline is facing bank fraud and money laundering charges in the U.S. after he allegedly funneled ten of millions of dollars from assets abroad via American bank accounts, CNN reports. In a news release on November 22nd, the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia confirmed that these charges were being brought against Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, the chairman, CEO, and founder of Air Peace.

Fake Boeing 737s, Prada and an Armored Lexus

According to the attorney’s office, Onyema was able to scam $44.9 million out of US banks with dodgy paperwork.

In several instances, Onyema used fake documents to ask for letters of credit to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes for Air Peace. The letters of credit “were supported by documents such as purchase agreements, bills of sale, and appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.”

Onyema also allegedly set up various “innocent-sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam,” said acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer. Millions of dollars of those funds didn’t go toward Peace Air at all.

What did he spend that money on instead? The court documents show that, instead of buying any planes at all, Onyema used the money for “personal living expenses,” including an armored Lexus LX570, a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes, purchases at Prada, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Louis Vuitton and the Apple store.

“The US Government Will Find No Dirt on Me”

However, Onyema says that all of his loans were legitimate and used to fund his airline.

In a statement quoted by Nigerian outlet Business Day, Onyema said, “I am innocent of all charges and the US government will find no dirt on me because I have never conducted business with any illegalities.” While the 737s were never purchased, Onyema says that the funds were used for Air Peace: “Every Kobo I transferred to the US for aircraft purchase went through the Central Bank of Nigeria LC regime and all were used for the same purpose.”

Speaking out about the indictments, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, said, “Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud. We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”

A warrant of arrest has been issued for Onyema, who was not available for comment.

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