Five days ago Fox News published a report revealing that Mike Espy, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate special election in Mississippi, received $750,000 in lobbying feeds from the government of Ivory Coast dictator Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo is currently on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

Dismissing the importance of the connection, a spokesman for the Espy campaign told Fox News, “Secretary Espy worked on agricultural issues for international clients. Over the course of that work, he realized one of those clients didn’t pass the smell test, so he terminated the contract, and then reported what he knew to the U.S. government.”

News Growl has now learned that Espy worked for a second West African leader with a questionable record. Nigerian state governor Victor Attah has been named in a British court judgement as part of a scheme to steal millions of dollars of government funds from his own people. Far from failing the “smell test,” Mike Espy still lists Attah’s state as a client on his own company website.

Mike Espy and Victor Attah

Victor Attah was elected governor of Akwa Ibom State in southeastern Nigeria in 1999 and served for eight years. Two years after assuming office he led a delegation of 21 officials to the United States to seek investment for his economically struggling region.

The trip has since been criticized in Nigerian media as an enormous waste of time and money. “The visit and others produced no tangible results. The huge amounts spent on estacodes and travel tickets, among others, could have been used to build some hospitals or schools or roads,” said an editorial appearing in Nigeria’s Daily Sun in 2008.

Reflecting on the trip in a recent interview with the Vanguard newspaper, Attah admitted most of the trip was a failure. But he did cite the hiring of then-recently departed Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy as a singular success.

“One of the things that happened was that I succeeded in engaging somebody like Mike Espy who was the only black man to have served in America as Secretary of Agriculture under Clinton,” Attah said.

According to a 2003 blurb in “The Pig Site” (and several other similar agriculture-related publications), Attah paid Espy a huge sum to work for him: “Espy has signed a $1.3 million, two-year contract to promote international trade as an investment advisor for the African region.”

It is not clear what exactly the relatively-poor people of Akwa Ibom State received for their $650,000 a year from Espy, but it is clear that Espy was extremely proud of his connection to the local Nigerian government. Fifteen years after that initial contract was signed, Mike Espy PLLC still lists Akwa Ibom State among its clients on its company website.

Mike Espy PLLC client list
The client list from the website of Mike Espy PLLC (highlight added for clarity)

Victor Attah and VMobile

Like many government entities in Nigeria, Akwa Ibom has experienced serious problems with corruption before, during, and after the time of Espy’s association. One of the most notorious scandals during Attah’s tenure as leader involved the sale of a cell phone provider partially owned by the state.

VMobile was one of Nigeria’s earliest mobile telecoms providers. The company was 18% owned by nearby Delta State, and 10% owned by Akwa Ibom. Both Victor Attah and Delta State governor James Ibori sat on the VMobile board.

According to Nigerian news source Sahara Reporters, both Attah and Ibori gained personally form a sale of VMobile through an elaborate and unnecessary fee structure.

“The basis of the fee would be a 5% flat commission and 25% -30% success fee for any price achieved over $6.5 per share.  This even though the market was already established at between $6.45-$8.05 per share… The fees were not legitimate or necessary but merely a mechanism to divert money to James Ibori and Victor Attah.   It was always intended that no work would be undertaken but money diverted.”

This alleged offences came to light during an investigation by British authorities. A 2009 report in Nigeria’s Daily Sun refers to a British deposition of Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, then chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

“In the said affidavit deposed to by him, Ribadu informed the London court that it was the Principal Private Secretary to the President, Mr. Edevbie David, who signed the ADFI agreement, conniving with former governors Victor Attah, Ibori and Tinubu to commit money laundering offences in the Vmobile shares.”

Attah’s partner and fellow governor James Ibori was eventually convicted in a British court for laundering tens of millions of dollars in stolen public funds. He has since been jailed and last month lost an appeal.

A section of the recent court ruling makes it clear that along with Ibori, Victor Attah was an important part of the scheme. Referring to Ibori’s solicitor, it says:

He created a company called African Development Finance (“ADF”) which would charge a substantial fee for negotiating and advising on the sale of V-Mobile shares by the two states. No work in fact was done by ADF. None was necessary. The money paid to ADF was siphoned off to accounts controlled by Ibori and Attah.

And later:

In effect, ADF was a sham, designed to hold assets only until they could be diverted to those who were intending to benefit from the fraud, namely James Ibori and Victor Attah.

Mike Espy maintains Attah association on website

Through the client list on his company website, Mike Espy has maintained his public association with the government of Akwa Ibom and (by extension) the man who hired him, Victor Attah. This is despite the VMobile scandal which has been public knowledge to some extent at least for nearly a decade.

This is perhaps because despite the conviction of James Ibori, and the damning statements in the British court judgements, Victor Attah has not himself been convicted of any wrongdoing in the VMoble case.

And despite the clouds hanging over his reputation, Attah still maintains major benefactors in the Nigerians political system. On the occasion of his 80th birthday two days ago, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari issued a glowing statement of praise for the politician.

Attah is now retired and seen as something of an elder statesman among his supporters.

A problem for Mike Espy?

On November 27th Mike Espy faces Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in a runoff for the special election to replace former US Senator Thad Cochran. In last night’s debate between the two, Espy made much of the recent statement by Hyde-Smith that she would gladly attend a public hanging with one of her supporters.

Hyde-Smith’s supporters, including Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, chalk up the bizarre remark to the the sort of slip that is inevitable when giving countless public speeches during a campaign.

Espy’s decision to accept $1.3 million from a Nigerian state with an average per capita income of less than $3,000 a year cannot be argued away as an accident, however. Nor can his decision to keep the association with Akwa Ibom State on his public website for many years after its leader was tainted by a huge embezzlement and money laundering scandal.

News Growl reached out to the Espy campaign for comment, specifically to ask if Victor Attah passed the same “smell test” which it is claimed caused the former Agriculture Secretary to cut ties with Laurent Gbagbo. We received no immediate reply.

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