Two civil servants found guilty of receiving exotic cars as gifts from an associate of the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke, Mr Jide Omokore has been fined N 4 million by the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, on Wednesday.
The court, in the judgement that was delivered by trial Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, held that Mr Victor Briggs who was a former Managing Director of the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company, NPDC, and Mr Abiye Membere, who was the former Group Executive Director, Exploration and Production of the NNPC, by accepting the gifts, acted in breach of section Section 98 of the Criminal Code.
It noted that the duo received the car gifts from Omokore who is the Chairman of Atlantic Energy Drilling Concepts Nigeria Ltd, while he was executing a contract for their employers, the NPDC and the NNPC.
The court held that the action of the defendants was contrary to laws guiding the conduct of public servants in the country.
However, Justice Dimbga held that though the law stipulated a maximum of a seven-year jail sentence for the offence, he said the court was at liberty to exercise its discretion in handing down a sentence.
“I have taken into account all that has been said about the defendants on their patriotism, family and integrity and also that there is no evidence of a previous conviction.
“I hereby impose a fine of N2 million on each of the defendants payable immediately, failure which they will be sentenced to two years in prison”, Justice Dimgba held.
Counsel to the defendants, Mr Tayo Oyetibo, SAN and Mr Osaro Eghobamien, SAN, had before the sentence was passed, pleaded with the county to temper justice with mercy.
They urged the court to consider that the defendants served the nation meritoriously in their respective capacities.
They maintained that their clients were men of impeccable character that had no previous record of crime.
Also testifying for himself, Briggs, prayed the court for leniency, even as he drew the attention of the trial judge to the health condition of his wife.
Justice Dimgba had earlier in his judgement, noted that the law was not specific on the sort of gifts that public officials could accept.
He said: “For example, certain legislation such as the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act in its Section 10(3) allows public officials to accept only personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such extent and on such occasions as are recognised by custom.
“This itself is very vague and requires greater elucidation. Are luxurious cars such as a Mercedez Benz and Range Rover gifted to the 4th and 5th Defendants on the occasion of their birthdays ‘recognised by custom’?
“Which custom? Should gifts made by contracting parties to public officials working in government agencies that the contracting parties have dealings with be acceptable if they fall within certain limits?
“And if so, what should be the threshold? There are no clear answers to this, and it is very much an ungoverned space. There is therefore an urgent and vital need for policymakers to weigh in to properly define the landscape with greater clarity with a comprehensive gift policy for the Nigerian public service, to prevent public officials from falling wittingly or unwittingly into legal booby-traps as appeared to have happened in this case with the 4th and 5th Defendants.
“Until such a clarification is made by the institution of a clear and comprehensive gift policy for the public service, it is safe to say that all public officials must act at strict arms-length in terms of gifts, with any private parties having any business to do with any departments in which the public official serves, and in which the public official might have some official connection.
“This is particularly so in the light of clear provisions such as Section 98 of the Criminal Code Act which forbids the receipt of benefits by public officials in connection with the performance of their official functions.
“Sadly, the 4th and 5th Defendants did not heed this, and must therefore suffer the consequence of a conviction under the said Section 98 of the Criminal Code Act”, he added.
It will be recalled that though the court dismissed a 15-count charge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, filed against Omokore and his companies, it, however, found the two former Directors guilty of breaching the code of conduct for public officers