FG rubbishes Binance CEO’s bribery allegation

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The Federal Government on Tuesday vowed to pursue the criminal case against the crypto platform, Binance, and its officials, to a logical end.

Speaking against the backdrop of a bribery allegation made by the Binance Chief Executive Officer, Richard Teng, in a blog post published by the New York Times, top officials of the President Bola Tinubu administration described as false and unfounded the accusation that some individuals demanded $150m bribe in cryptocurrency to settle the criminal charge against the firm.

The NYT on Tuesday reported that on a trip to Nigeria in January, Tigran Gambaryan, a compliance officer with the exchange, received an unsettling message: The company had 48 hours to make a payment of roughly $150m in crypto.

Gambaryan, a former United States law enforcement agent, understood the message as a request for a bribe from someone in the Nigerian government.

The incident allegedly occurred before Gambaryan and a colleague, Nadeem Anjarwalla, were arrested and detained on the orders of the National Security Adviser. Anjarwalla subsequently escaped and has been traced to Kenya.

Gambaryan has been held in Kuje Correctional Facility in  the last four weeks, after he was transferred there from a safe house on April 8.

Both Binance and Gambaryan are facing trial for tax evasion and money laundering.

Their trial was scheduled to begin last Thursday, but the court postponed it until May 17.

Gambaryan reportedly wrote a three-page report describing the payment request and gave it to Binance’s lawyers, two people familiar with the report told NYT.

He also reportedly alerted contacts in the Nigerian government and recounted the incident to them.

 Binance had denied that Gambaryan had any “decision-making power” in the company.

The case is the latest legal headache for Binance, which agreed to a $4.3bn fine last year to settle charges by the US government that it allowed criminal activity to flourish on its platform.

In April, the company’s founder, Changpeng Zhao, was sentenced to four months in prison for his role in those violations.

The spokesman for the ONSA, Zakari Mijinyawa, said in a text message to NYT that the Federal Government would make its case “on the strength of the facts and evidence, in accordance with due process.”

“We are confident that Nigeria has a good case. Binance equally will have every opportunity under the rule of law to make its case and see justice delivered,” Mijinyawa said.

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 In his post, Teng laid out the history of Binance’s engagement with Nigeria, which has become a hotspot for the crypto industry.

It has the second-highest rate of crypto adoption in the world behind India, according to Chainalysis, a data firm.

In 2023, the financial regulators issued a statement directing Binance to stop soliciting investors in Nigeria.

Binance halted its advertising in the country and offered to meet with government officials, Teng said.

On January 8, Teng said Gambaryan and a group of Binance employees met with lawmakers, but the meeting was contentious

The lawmakers, he wrote, read aloud a list of accusations against Binance, including tax violations.

They also threatened to pursue an arrest warrant for Teng, the article said.

As the Binance employees left the meeting, Teng wrote they were approached by “unknown persons” who suggested that they make a payment to settle the allegations.

Later, a local lawyer representing Binance spoke with someone purporting to be an agent of the House committee, Teng further claimed in his article, adding that the purported agent demanded “a significant payment in cryptocurrency to be paid in secret within 48 hours to make these issues go away,”

The amount was roughly $150m, four people familiar with the matter said, according to a Bloomberg report, quoting NYT sources.

“Our team grew increasingly concerned about their safety in Nigeria and immediately departed. We, of course, declined the payment demand via our counsel, not viewing it to be a legitimate settlement offer,” Teng wrote in his post.

Teng claimed that Binance had received assurances that  Gambaryan would be safe if he returned to Nigeria.

According to him, a company adviser with deep local connections recommended that Binance officials meet with the ONSA.

EFCC dismisses allegation

However, a prosecutor with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ekele Iheanacho, dismissed Teng’s allegation, vowing to prosecute the case to the end.

Iheanacho, one of the lawyers prosecuting the Binance officials, said, ‘’Nobody demanded any money, the case is being taken to a logical conclusion. He’s making it up although I am not aware of any such allegations. As far as I am concerned, the charges are going on and we are making every effort to ensure that we get to a logical end.’’

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The Media Adviser to the Attorney-General of the Federation, Kamarudeen Ogundele, directed inquiries to the information minister and the Presidency.

He said “You can call the minister of information or president’s spokesperson. This allegation is not court-related. It is not an allegation against the Attorney-General of the Federation.

The information minister, Mohammed Idris, could not be reached for comment as calls to his phone rang out.

But senior officials, who spoke in separate interviews with The PUNCH on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk about the matter, dared the Binance boss to reveal the names of individuals who demanded the bribe.

A top official in the ONSA, who is close to the probe, said, “Did he (Binance CEO) mention a name? Since he didn’t mention a name, why should anyone be worried? Why should anyone waste their time if somebody made an unfounded allegation but could not mention any name?”

A top EFCC chief, who is close to the trial, also said, “If someone would say something like this, he should have the capacity to mention the people. It’s not worth our time, anybody can say anything but as long as they can’t substantiate it, it’s a waste of time. He should mention names, if not, all that he’s saying is rubbish.”

Two top officials at the EFCC accused the Binance CEO of blackmailing the Federal Government.

 They noted that Teng’s claim was frivolous, describing his action as ‘’the modus operandi of foreign personalities and corporations facing legal charges in Nigeria and other African countries.’’

One of the sources noted, “It is not only the EFCC that is prosecuting or investigating Binance over its atrocities against Nigeria. There are allegations of money laundering, and tax evasion, amongst others, against the company, and several federal government agencies are probing the company’s activities in the country.

“But the latest comment about alleged request for bribery by the Binance CEO is a blackmail against the Federal Government. That is the modus operandi of international corporations and individuals facing charges in Nigeria or anywhere else in Africa.”

A senior official noted, “It is the tradition of these international players to blackmail the country whenever they’re caught. What is the correlation between the alleged request for bribes and the allegations brought against Binance?

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“The facts are there – they evaded tax, their platform is being used to launder money, so why are they not facing the facts? The claim is frivolous and a mere blackmail against the government.”

The spokesperson for ONSA, Mijinyawa, could not be reached for comments on Tuesday. He did not respond to calls and a message sent to his phone.

The spokesperson for the EFCC, Dele Oyewale, declined comment.

CSOs react

Commenting on the development, the Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Auwal Musa Ibrahim, said he wasn’t surprised by the allegation, noting the bad reputation of Nigeria’s administrative justice system.

He urged the CEO to “be bold enough” to name persons and organisations involved in the alleged demand for bribes so that they could be dealt with decisively.

 ‘’This allegation is not enough, it should be investigated and let Nigerians know those undermining their country’s integrity. The (Binance) CEO should be bold enough to mention those individuals or corporate organisations that have demanded bribes on this matter.

‘’This is important in order not to make frivolous accusations and to also deal decisively with these public officials who always mortgage this country. So, we urge him to be courageous and bold enough to also mention those individuals, those organisations, those government officials, if at all they were involved”, he said

Similarly, the Chairman of the Centre for Accountability and Open Leadership, Debo Adeniran, said Binance should be compelled to name the alleged persons so they can be prosecuted.

He added that the officials who allowed the Binance executive to slip out of the country should be equally investigated.

“Binance should be compelled to name names, and everyone involved should be prosecuted and punished. All the agencies involved in the Binance case; DSS, NIA, DMI, Immigration Services, which let him slip out of Nigeria should be investigated and culpable offenders should be prosecuted and given deterrent punishment,’’ he suggested.

Binance did not respond to email queries to provide clarity and insight on the ‘unknown persons’ who suggested making payment to settle the allegations.

The crypto exchange did not also respond to how much the ‘unknown persons’ requested.

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