A mild drama played out at the Ikeja High Court, venue of the sentencing of Francis Atuche, a former Managing Director of defunct Bank PHB to six years in prison.
The former bank chief and founder of Hubmart chain of stores, begged Justice Lateefa Okunnu not to send him to prison following his conviction for defrauding the bank of N25.7 billion.
Atuche and Ugo Anyanwu, a former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the bank, were both found guilty of 22 of the 27-count of conspiracy and stealing charge proffered against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2011.
However, the trial judge, Okunnu found Atuche’s wife, Elizabeth, who faced trial alongside the duo; not guilty of two counts of conspiracy and stealing brought against her.
Shortly before Atuche and Anyanwu’s sentencing, the judge asked if they had any plea to make. They answered in the affirmative. Addressing the court, Atuche prayed Justice Okunnu to temper justice with mercy and begged her not to send him to jail.
“All the time I was the MD of Bank PHB, I gave my all to the bank. Never at any material time did it occur to me that I would set up a scheme to defraud the bank. I plead for mercy, leniency, your kindness. I plead that out of your kindness and generosity, you will not allow me to go to jail. Please I am sorry and remorseful,” Atuche said.
Atuche told the court that as a professional banker and chartered accountant; he certainly did not want to become a convict.
“I pray that God will place in your heart to be kind. I plead from the bottom of my heart. I’m extremely sorry. Today will be a turning point in my life. I’m very sorry,” he begged.
Counsel to Atuche, Paul Nneoma, in his plea for mercy, described Atuche as a responsible family man who had never been convicted of any crime. He appealed to the court to give Atuche a fine instead of incarceration in order to preserve his professional career.
Also pleading, Anyanwu told the court that he was the only son of a police officer; adding that his father died when he was barely a year old. He said that he grew up on the premise of hard work.
“What I achieved in the banking industry is by stint of hard work. I have suffered in the last 10 years of this trial. I am sorry if I was appearing cocky in the witness box during my examination-in-chief. And I have two kids who are barely teenagers. They look up to their father and I wonder what kind of impact this will have on them. Please temper justice with mercy,” Anyanwu prayed.
Anyanwu’s counsel, Silva Ogwemoh (SAN), also begged for mercy on his client. He said that one of Anyanwu’s children had a medical condition requiring special attention. He added that Anyanwu was hypertensive; urging that the court should take judicial notice of the COVID-19 pandemic and impose a fine on him instead of custodial sentence.
Reacting to the pleas of the defendants, the EFCC team led by Kemi Pinheiro (SAN); requested for a stiff sentence as well as an order of restitution against the convicts. He said that Lagos State Government spent much funds and resources prosecuting the case in the past 10 years.
Justice Okunnu eventually sentenced Atuche to six years’ jail term and gave Anyanwu four years’ imprisonment. She equally made an order for restitution. The judge said Atuche abused his position of trust by stealing from the bank.
“By stealing from the bank, they stole from innocent customers of the bank. I hereby make an order of restitution against the first and third defendants to refund the sums stated in counts one to 11, 14 and 24. The sums are to paid to the relevant agencies that recovered the funds on behalf of the bank,” she ordered.