Ex-Nigerian official pleads guilty to fraud in pandemic aid

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A former Nigerian government official arrested in connection with massive fraud against Washington state‘s pandemic relief effort pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday, prosecutors said.

Abidemi Rufai, 45, of Lekki, Nigeria, admitted in US District Court in Tacoma that he used stolen identities to receive more than $350,000 in pandemic-related unemployment benefits from Washington state.

He also acknowledged previous fraud counts: Since 2017, he’s obtained identifying information from more than 20,000 Americans, filed $2 million in claims for disaster relief and other federal benefits, and received more than $600,000, prosecutors said.

Rufai was special assistant to the governor of Nigeria’s Ogun state when he was arrested at New York’s JFK airport in May 2021 while en route to Nigeria.

The case against him helped illustrate how Washington’s Occupational Safety Department had succumbed to a widespread scam – in which it attempted to distribute benefits designed to help people survive the pandemic financially.

Rufai took advantage of a feature of Gmail, Google’s free email service, that allowed him to use a single email account modified by adding dots to the address to submit multiple jobless claims in Washington and elsewhere using stolen social security numbers and other personal information.

Rufai faces up to 32 years in prison for wire fraud related to a presidential-declared disaster and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors agreed to recommend less than six years, Seattle U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said in a release.

Rufai also agreed to pay compensation to the agencies he defrauded, although his ability to do so remained unclear.

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