Sahara Reporters fends off long-running million dollar libel claim
Sahara Reporters, an online news agency that uses citizen journalists to report on corruption, human rights violations and other misconduct in Nigeria, receives frequent libel threats and is currently fighting two multi-million dollar libel cases in the US courts. MLDI has helped Sahara Reporters secure the services of veteran free speech lawyers. One of them, Rob Balin, has now defeated a thirty million dollar libel case launched against Sahara Reporters in New York. Sahara Reporters' founder, Omoyele Sowore, tells how the case was won.
Facing serious federal criminal charges of fraud in a U.S. court, the Pentacostal Deeper Life Pastor Eric Abakporo suddenly abandoned his $30 million libel suit against SaharaReporters for its coverage in 2010 of a petition that implicated Mr. Abakporo in alleged corruption—unrelated to the pending criminal charges—within the Nigerian Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Mr. Abakporo filed the lawsuit in a New York State Court in Brooklyn claiming that SaharaReporters defamed him in a series of reports on the petition, which alleged corruption by the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Joy Ogwu, and other Nigerian Mission staff in their handling of renovation projects at the Mission and its living quarters . The petition alleged that a company called St. Cyprian Properties was Ambassador Ogwu’s “front for fraud” and had benefitted from the questionable renovation projects. Real estate records identify Mr. Abakporo as the “President” of St. Cyprian, although Mr. Abakporo disclaimed any interest in St. Cyprian in his lawsuit against SaharaReporters.
Mr. Abakporo also claimed he was libeled when SaharaReporters cited an article published by the New York Daily News that named him in the alleged scamming of an elderly African-American woman out of her apartment building in Harlem. . SaharaReporters aggressively defended itself against the libel charges with help from the Media Legal Defence Initiative in the UK, which found pro bono assistance for SaharaReporters through the Manhattan office of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. Mr. Abakporo’s lawsuit, which was transferred to federal court in Brooklyn, ultimately crumbled in the face of aggressive inquiry on the part of SaharaReporters.
Mr. Abakporo’s claims took what turned out to be a devastating hit in May when the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the New York State Attorney General announced the arrests of Mr. Abakporo and an alleged accomplice, Latanya Pierce, and charged them with one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, as well as one substantive count of bank and wire fraud, in connection with the allegedly fraudulent real estate transaction in Harlem. Mr. Abakporo was briefly detained and granted bail. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial has not yet been scheduled.
In the libel case against SaharaReporters, after Mr. Abakporo conspicuously missed several deadlines to provide documents in court ordered discovery, he was ordered by a Magistrate Judge to pay fines. The Magistrate Judge had also indicated his intent to recommend that St. Cyprian be held in contempt of court for failure to comply with a subpoena. But Mr. Abakporo suddenly tendered a letter requesting permission to voluntarily dismiss his libel case against SaharaReporters, claiming his lawyers advised him that continuing the libel lawsuit could jeopardize his constitutional rights in the criminal fraud case.
As plausible as that excuse might sound, one wonders whether that is the whole story behind Mr. Abakporo’s capitulation. SaharaReporters, through its lawyers, was pushing hard to establishMr. Abakporo’s connection to St. Cyprian, which the petition alleged benefitted with approximately $675,000 from the Nigerian Permanent Mission renovation projects. A document tendered in court by SaharaReporters showed that Mr. Abakporo had signed documents in an unrelated real estate transaction on behalf of St. Cyprian as its President. Mr. Abakporo claimed that for purposes of this single transaction only, he was merely acting on behalf of St. Cyprian’s true president, and that he otherwise had no involvement with the company beyond services provided for the transaction. The transaction was the acquisition by St. Cyprian of the very building that houses Mr. Abakporo’s law offices. Yet, while denying that he was President of St. Cyprian, Mr. Abakporo refused to identify the real President of St. Cyprian. Indeed, Mr. Abakporo refused to identify any of St. Cyprian’s officers, directors or owners.
Also, St. Cyprian’s certificate of incorporation showed that the company is located at a property in Queens owned by Mr. Abakporo’s brother, and the certificate was filed by one Emmanuella Agwu from the same address as Mr. Abakporo’s law office.
Mr. Abakporo failed to show up in court at the last three public hearings in the libel case. He claimed to have been in Nigeria on the first two dates and, on one occasion, a lawyer friend, Chidi Eze (who represents Latanya Pierce in her own libel lawsuit against the Daily News) was there for Abakporo. Mr. Eze informed the Magistrate that he was not appearing as Abakporo’s official attorney of record.
On a more dramatic note on May 4th 2012 just days after Mr. Abakporo’s arrest, the court held a hearing relating to St. Cyprian’s longstanding failure to produce requested documents regarding its relationship with Mr. Abakporo and the Nigerian Mission. At this hearing, Emmanuella Agwu (the person listed as having filed St. Cyprian’s certificate of incorporation) appeared in court. Although Ms. Agwu is a lawyer, she informed the judge that she was not representing St. Cyprian and was not an officer of St. Cyprian. Instead, she told the judge that she had come to let him know that the current president of St. Cyprian, an individual she claimed was named “Bernard”, had asked her to inform the court that he was in Nigeria and did not know when he would be able to appear in court to answer to the contempt citation threatened against St. Cyprian. But SaharaReporters lawyers reminded the court that it was Ms. Agwu who had registered the company from the same address as Mr. Abakporo’s law office. Ms. Agwu then said she did not recall whether she had filed St. Cyprian’s certificate of incorporation. She also denied knowing “Bernard” personally or anything about St. Cyprian’s business.
Since no actual authorized St. Cyprian representative ever bothered to appear in court, as required, the Magistrate Judge stated that he would recommend that St. Cyprian be held in contempt of court for its failure to so appear and for its failure to comply with SaharaReporters’ subpoena requesting documents. With St. Cyprian’s contempt citation apparently imminent, Mr. Abakporo suddenly requested to discontinue his lawsuit in a letter written to the court on May 17, 2012. The U.S. District Judge overseeing the case then struck down and closed the case file within 24 hours.
Mr. Abakporo’s now-dismissed suit is the second of such libel lawsuits intended to harass and intimidate SaharaReporters that has been disposed of in the US district courts, the first being a suit filed by Paul Orhii in Texas before he was rewarded with the position of the director general of NAFDAC by the Yar’adua regime.
Emeka UgwuonyeA Maryland-based Nigerian lawyer, Emeka Uguonye, initially under the prodding of the Yar’adua regime, filed a third libel case.
The case was prompted by an expose written by SaharaReporters on the handling of real estate transactions involving the sale of several properties owned by the Nigerian government in the Washington DC area, Mr. Ugwuonye filed a rash of libel suits against SaharaReporters and several Nigerians who actively debated the issue on the internet. Part of the purpose of the lawsuit was to shut down SaharaReporters by suing the domain name registrant and protection service, Godaddy, and Domain by Proxy.
However, after securing Domain by Proxy to tactically release the addresses of SaharaReporters publisher to him, Mr. Ugwuonye quickly published on the internet and let Domain by Proxy off the lawsuit.
Several years later and after several delays occasioned by delayed prosecution of the case through several excuses on his part, the case has progressed to the advance stage, after both parties undertook deposition and document discovery.
SaharaReporters has filed a motion for summary judgment before the judge handling the case and awaits a decision. However, characteristically Mr. Ugwuonye has widened his conspiracy against the website and its operators by courting corrupt Nigerian politicians in his quest to silence the site as he no longer enjoys the confidence of his former clients, the Nigerian government which has arrested and charged him with criminal offences in Nigeria and filed bar complaints and a civil lawsuit against him before a US district court in Washington DC.
To stave off the revelation of his professional and legal troubles, Mr. Ugwuonye regularly publishes series of reports penned by him to paint himself as a human rights activist being persecuted by the Nigerian government. In court filings, at different times he also claims our team picks on him because of his ethnicity.
Before his current legal troubles, Ugwuonye represented former Nigerian dictator Abdusalam Abubakar before a US district judge in Michigan and Chicago. While at it Mr. Ugwuonye described the Nigerian judiciary as perfectly sufficient to handle all human rights cases and for his services, the Nigerian government settled the case and paid Emeka $700,000 on behalf of Mr. Abubakar.
By SaharaReporters, New York - republished with permission