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4th Circuit upholds conviction in Maryland-based elder abuse scam

A Nigerian who had never been to Maryland was validly tried and convicted in Greenbelt federal court of conspiring to launder money from an online scam that convinced elderly people seeking romance to part with a total of more than $1 million, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The U.S. District Court for Maryland was a proper venue for Seun Banjo Ojedokun’s trial last year because a co-conspirator – in fact, the plan’s mastermind – resided in Laurel, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in its published 3-0 decision.

Ojedokun was appealing his conviction for the money laundering conspiracy in which vulnerable victims fell prey to tales of financial woe from online schemers who had befriended them. U.S. District Judge Paul W. Grimm sentenced Ojedokun in March to nine years in prison and three years’ supervised release, as well as ordering him to pay $325,100 in restitution, for his role in attempting to conceal the ill-gotten gains from his home in Lagos, Nigeria.

On appeal, the 4th Circuit rejected Ojedokun’s argument, through counsel, that the federal Money Laundering Control Act does not apply “extraterritorially” to foreign nationals whose alleged illegal act occurred overseas. Ojedokun’s alleged involvement in the scam occurred while he was in Nigeria, stated his appellate attorney, Brent E. Newton.

The 4th Circuit agreed that federal laws do not generally apply extraterritorially based on the notion that Congress’ primary concern is with domestic activities. But this presumption against extraterritorially is trumped when Congress states clearly in the law that the statute is intended to cover activities abroad, the court added.

The MLCA contains such clarity by stating it applies extraterritorially to the conduct of non-U.S. citizens that “occurs in part in the United States.” By entering into the agreement with a Laurel resident, Ojedokun engaged in conduct that occurred not only in Nigeria but also in the United States, the 4th Circuit said.

“At bottom, conspiracies operate in a sweeping geographic sense, wherever the conspiratorial agreement is made as well as anywhere an overt act in furtherance takes place – even if a particular co-conspirator never travels to such places,” Judge Robert B. King wrote for the court.

“Such a broad presence flows from the agency relationship underpinning conspiracies, which dictates that what one conspirator does is attributable to all his associates,” King added. “Those conspiratorial agreements (in this case) were made with, among others, Gbenga Benson Ogundele, a resident of the State of Maryland.”

Newton, Ojedokun’s appellate attorney, did not immediately respond to a message Tuesday seeking comment on the 4th Circuit’s decision. Newton is of counsel at Gerger Hennessy & McFarlane in Houston, Texas.

The underlying scam involved Ogundele and other initial conspirators searching online dating sites to initiate romantic relationships with elderly men and women throughout the United States, according to federal prosecutors. These conspirators used false stories to convince their victims to provide them money, including fake hospital bills and tales of business problems and tax debt.

The conspirators opened bank accounts where the money would be deposited and laundered through overseas accounts opened by other conspirators, including Ojedokun, prosecutors said.

Ogundele was convicted in 2016 in U.S. District Court of aggravated identity theft and conspiracies to commit wire fraud and money laundering. Grimm sentenced him the following year to more than 19 years in prison and ordered him to forfeit nearly $2.2 million.

Federal agents arrested Ojedokun in April 2019 at his home in Chicago, where he had moved to in 2017 to pursue a doctorate in chemistry at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Ogundele and Ojedokun are among five individuals convicted of participating in the scam.

“These heartless fraudsters left their victims heartbroken, embarrassed and financially devastated,” then-acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner said in a statement after Ojedokun’s sentencing. Lenzner, who was replaced this month by U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron, encouraged everyone who knows of a victim of elder abuse to call the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-FRAUD-11.

King was joined in the 4th Circuit opinion by Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory and Judge Henry F. Floyd.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in United States of America v. Seun Banjo Ojedokun, No. 21-4127.