LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Koreatown lawyer has been indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple felonies related to a $2.1 million bribe he allegedly received while working for Nigeria’s state-owned oil company. The bribe was in connection with negotiating favorable drilling rights for a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned oil company. Paulinus Okoronkwo, a 67-year-old practicing immigration and personal injury lawyer based in Valencia, was charged in a five-count indictment on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Okoronkwo is facing charges including engaging in monetary transactions derived from unlawful activity, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice.
Okoronkwo, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria, served as the general manager of the upstream division of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. As a foreign official and public servant, he owed a fiduciary duty to the Nigerian people, according to the DOJ. In October 2015, a Swiss-based subsidiary of Sinopec, a Chinese state-owned petroleum conglomerate, allegedly wired $2.1 million to an account in the name of Okoronkwo’s Los Angeles law firm. The payment was said to be for his work as a consultant in negotiating and completing a settlement agreement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.
Addax Petroleum, the subsidiary involved, calculated that it would suffer significant financial losses if its drilling rights were not secured. Court papers allege that the engagement letter between Addax and Okoronkwo’s law office, which had a fake address in Lagos, Nigeria, was designed to conceal the fact that the payment was a bribe in exchange for influence regarding financial terms relating to its drilling operations in Nigeria. To cover up the illegal scheme, Addax falsely labeled the payment as a payment for legal services, lied to an auditor about it, and fired an executive who questioned its propriety. Okoronkwo allegedly received the bribe in an account that was ostensibly used for charitable purposes, further disguising it as legitimate funds.
In November 2017, Okoronkwo reportedly used nearly $1 million of the illicit funds to purchase a house in Valencia. In addition to money laundering, he is charged with tax evasion for omitting the bribe payment from his 2015 federal income tax return. He also faces an obstruction of justice charge for lying to investigators during an interview in June 2022. If convicted, Okoronkwo could serve up to 10 years in federal prison for each money laundering count, up to 10 years for obstruction of justice, and up to five years for tax evasion.
Okoronkwo is expected to be arraigned in downtown Los Angeles in the coming weeks.
In summary, Paulinus Okoronkwo, a lawyer based in Koreatown, has been indicted on multiple charges related to a $2.1 million bribe he allegedly received while working for Nigeria’s state-owned oil company. He is accused of engaging in monetary transactions derived from unlawful activity, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice. If convicted, Okoronkwo could face significant prison time.