A senior Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, official has been slammed with bribery and tax-related charges in the United States.

A jury recently returned a three-count indictment against Paulinus Iheanacho Okoronkwo after the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that he used his position as a general manager in NNPC’s upstream department to obtain at least $2.1 million in bribes. 

The alleged bribe was to assist Addax Petroleum escape its $2.4 billion liability to Nigeria as part of an oil-lifting contract that began in 2001, the January 10, 2024, the grand jury indictment said before the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Mr Okoronkwo, 56, a dual citizen of Nigeria and the U.S., has practised immigration and personal injury law in California for nearly 30 years. On May 25, 2015, just days before President Goodluck Jonathan was due to exit office on May 29, Mr Okoronkwo and other NNPC officials hurriedly entered into an agreement that would see Addax Petroleum return to developing Nigeria’s crude and gas reserves after a protracted pause due to a yearslong dispute over the 2001 deal between Nigeria and the Chinese firm. 

Addax Petroleum, based in Switzerland but owned by Sinopec, bribed Mr  Okoronkwo with $5,263,157.89, including an immediate payment of $2,105,263.16, in October 2015 after the new administration of Muhammadu Buhari threatened the May 2015 contract, court documents said. Prosecutors did not immediately say whether or not Mr Okoronkwo received the balance from Addax, which might have been paid through other channels that may or may not pass through the U.S. financial system.

The $2.1 million payment was made via a wire transfer to Mr Okoronkwo’s law firm bank account in the U.S. It was purportedly billed for “Consultants for the negotiation and completion of a Settlement Agreement with NNPC” with respect to Addax’s dispute over drilling rights, prosecutors said in the indictment first alleged before a grand jury in June 2023. 

Mr Okoronkwo helped Addax navigate the challenges from the Buhari administration that initially tried to impose a $2.37 billion liability on the Chinese firm, filings said.  

“Addax had calculated that the failure to apply the side letter prospectively would cost Addax approximately $2.37 billion,” the indictment said. Mr Okoronkwo was using his U.S. law firm to purportedly represent Nigeria against NNPC, where he was also working as a general manager in charge of crude oil transactions. 

Both Mr Okoronkwo and Addax made several efforts to conceal the bribe payment as legitimate, and a senior vice-president of the company was fired on July 13, 2016, for questioning the $2.1 million illicit transaction. 

Authorities also filed obstruction and tax-evasion charges against Mr Okoronkwo for lying to investigators about the nature of the deal while also failing to pay taxes on it in his 2016 returns. 

Mr Okoronkwo knew the $2,105,263 payment represented a bribe from Addax in exchange for his influencing the NNPC, that the payment did not represent client funds but rather illicit income and the $45,000 in gross income represented in his individual tax return did not include the multimillion-dollar bribe payment he had received, the filings said.

Mr Okoronkwo will be arraigned in the coming weeks and faces up to 10 years in prison upon conviction. A separate forfeiture proceeding was underway to recover Mr Okoronkwo’s ill-gotten yields, including a home he bought in cash for $983,200 in 2017 from the proceeds. 

A spokesman for the NNPC did not immediately return a request seeking comments over Mr Okoronkwo’s case, which marked only the latest in a long trail of prosecutions instituted over illegal transactions from Nigeria by U.S. officials in California. The same district had recently confiscated over $6 million from Ara Dolarian, an unlicensed arms dealer who bilked Nigeria to the tune of $12 million in 2014.