A Nigerian who had never been to Maryland over the course of a Laurel-based online scam, which convinced elderly people seeking romance to part with a total of more than $1 million, has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn his conviction for conspiring to launder money.
In papers filed with the justices, Seun Banjo Ojedokun’s attorneys said the conviction cannot stand because Congress did not clearly state in the federal law against conspiracy to launder money that the statute applies “extraterritorially,” to actions outside the United States.
Without a clear congressional statement, a federal law must be presumed to apply solely to domestic activities, the lawyers stated, noting that Ojedokun was in Lagos, Nigeria.
Ojedokun is appealing a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld his conviction in the federal district court in Greenbelt. The 4th Circuit said the federal law was validly enforced against his overseas participation in the conspiracy activity because his Laurel co-conspirator, the plan’s mastermind, was in the United States.
In their petition for Supreme Court review, Ojedokun’s attorneys pressed the justices to apply to federal criminal laws the same presumption against foreign — or “extraterritorial” — application they have applied to civil statutes that lack a clear statement from Congress that they are to apply abroad.
The attorneys stated that a U.S. connection is insufficient to criminalize a money laundering conspiracy that occurred abroad because the law does not clearly apply to foreign activities.
“This case involves an individual non-U.S. citizen prosecuted for his conduct taking place wholly outside the United States, but resolution of the question presented also has important implications for businesses operating transnationally,” wrote Lawrence D. Rosenberg, Ojedokun’s lead attorney before the high court.
“As businesses continue to globalize and operate across jurisdictions, they need clarity about the scope and reach of United States law to understand their legal obligations,” added Rosenberg, of Jones Day in Washington. “A strong presumption against extraterritoriality uniformly applied by the courts would … result in more precise and explicit drafting by Congress of statutes meant to apply to activities outside of the United States. Thus, the application of statutes to foreign actors and associated risks of prosecution would become more predictable.”
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar this month waived the federal government’s right to respond to the petition unless the Supreme Court requests a response. The justices are scheduled to consider Ojedokun’s request for their review on Thursday.
The case is docketed at the Supreme Court as Seun Banjo Ojedokun v. United States, No. 21-1380.
Ojedokun was convicted for a money laundering conspiracy in which vulnerable victims fell prey to tales of financial woe from online schemers who had befriended them.
U.S. District Judge Paul W. Grimm sentenced Ojedokun in March 2021 to nine years in prison and three years’ supervised release, as well as ordering him to pay $325,100 in restitution, for his role in attempting to conceal the ill-gotten gains from his home in Nigeria.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit rejected Ojedokun’s argument, through counsel, that the federal Money Laundering Control Act does not apply extraterritorially to foreign nationals whose alleged illegal act occurred overseas.
The underlying scam involved Gbenga Benson Ogundele in Laurel and other initial conspirators searching online dating sites to initiate romantic relationships with elderly men and women throughout the United States, according to federal prosecutors. These conspirators used false stories to convince their victims to provide them money, including fake hospital bills and tales of business problems and tax debt.
The conspirators opened bank accounts where the money would be deposited and laundered through overseas accounts opened by other conspirators, including Ojedokun, prosecutors said.
Ogundele was convicted in 2016 in U.S. District Court of aggravated identity theft and conspiracies to commit wire fraud and money laundering. Grimm sentenced him the following year to more than 19 years in prison and ordered him to forfeit nearly $2.2 million.
Federal agents arrested Ojedokun in April 2019 at his home in Chicago, where he had moved in 2017 to pursue a doctorate in chemistry at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Ogundele and Ojedokun are among five individuals convicted of participating in the scam.
“These heartless fraudsters left their victims heartbroken, embarrassed and financially devastated,” then-acting Maryland U.S. Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner said in a statement after Ojedokun’s sentencing. Lenzner, who was replaced in October by U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron, encouraged anyone who knows of a victim of elder abuse to call the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-FRAUD-11.