A 39-year-old Nigerian man was sentenced to a year and a half in federal prison for his role in a stolen identity tax fraud scheme.
The lawyer for Okiemute “Bobby” Dotie argued that his client played a minor role, wasn’t aware what he did was criminal and that the main culprit is his alleged accomplice who initiated the scam and remains on the lam.
But U.S. District Judge Karin J. Immergut found otherwise, saying she believed Dotie knew what he was doing.
She accepted Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Ho’s sentence recommendation, rejecting defense lawyer Steven Ungar’s recommendation of time-served.
Dotie was arrested in Brussels, Belgium, on Oct. 18, 2022, based on an Interpol notice that alerted authorities that he was a fugitive as he attempted to board the Eurostar train to London, according to a federal affidavit.
He spent five and a half months in custody in Belgium before he was extradited to Oregon on a federal indictment. He pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
The charge stemmed from an alleged romance scheme involving Dotie’s friend, Chieloka Okekearu, who is believed to be living in Nigeria but hasn’t been arrested on a pending indictment in the case.
It was Okekearu who struck up an online relationship with an Oregon woman whom he met on the dating website Match.com in January 2014, the affidavit said. He used a fake name of “Terry Robinson” and claimed he was a white man in his 60s who was living outside the United States and attempting to pay off debts to return to Oregon, the affidavit said.
The Sherwood woman agreed to make several financial transactions through bank accounts she opened to help “Terry Robinson” pay off his debts so he could see her in Oregon, according to the affidavit.
Okekearu, meanwhile, submitted at least three false federal income tax returns to the IRS between February 2015 and April 2015, requesting refunds totaling $264,349, the affidavit said.
The IRS issued refunds for the fraudulent returns and Okekearu had the refunds electronically deposited to bank accounts that the Sherwood woman had opened in the United States to help her online romancer, according to the affidavit.
At Okekearu’s direction, the woman then transferred the fraudulent refund money from her bank accounts to Dotie’s bank accounts.
At the time, Dotie was visiting his children and ex-wife in Houston. In an initial interview with a federal investigator in Texas in 2018, he denied knowing Okekearu or anything about fraudulent tax refund money, the affidavit said.
But further investigation revealed that Dotie sent an email in early April 2015 that said “tax refund season” was ending and offering to supply “yankee” bank accounts. The inquiry also revealed on his email account at least eight “transaction notifications” from the United Bank for Africa that listed Okekearu as either the sender or receiver of the transfer between 2015 and 2017, the affidavit said.
Ungar said Dotie allowed his bank account to be used to exchange money from the Nigerian niara currency to dollars or vice versa, after getting a call from Okekearu, a longtime friend.
“He had no idea it had anything to do with any kind of scam or scheme in Nigeria,” Ungar said. Ungar said Dotie got involved to help pay for child support for his children. About $40,000 went to child support and another $10,000 to his ex-wife, Ungar said.
He argued that Dotie, who has a master’s degree in public administration and owned and ran a family liquor distribution business in Nigeria, already has served a year and one month in custody, which was sufficient. His business is insolvent.
“He’s paid dearly,” Ungar told the court.
Dotie also addressed the judge. He said he took full responsibility for what he did, causing “great shame” to himself and his family. He said he lost his judgment, hoping to make a profit and has learned his lesson.
Immergut found that Dotie wasn’t a minor player in the scheme.
“I don’t believe you didn’t understand what you were doing,” she said.
She said his email referencing “tax refund season” undermined his claim.
And it was Dotie’s bank account that was used “to funnel the money” that benefited him and his co-defendant, the judge said.
“These types of schemes are extremely prevalent. … You made it easy to do. You added legitimacy to the conduct that was clearly illegal and for that, you played a very significant role in my view,” Immergut said.
Dotie must also pay $120,770.92 in restitution to the IRS.
Ungar said he expects his client will get credit for time-served, the 13 months that includes the five and a half months he was held in Belgium before he was sent back to the United States.
But that will be up to Immergut and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.