In addition to allegedly bilking Washington state’s Employment Security Department of nearly $350,000 in jobless benefits, suspended Nigerian government official Abidemi Rufai also sought to defraud the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $1.6 million, federal prosecutors said Friday.
Rufai allegedly filed 652 fraudulent tax returns on behalf of taxpayers whose identities he had stolen, the IRS said. The agency’s investigation showed the scheme netted Rufai nearly $900,000, since many of the returns were rejected by the IRS.
Law enforcement has sought to keep Rufai detained pending trial, arguing that he is a flight risk. The new information about his alleged attempts to cheat the tax system adds weight to calls for his continued detention, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Friday in a new filing in Seattle’s federal court.
“Now that the loss and attempted loss associated with Rufai’s conduct has grown substantially, Rufai faces an even longer prison sentence, and therefore an even stronger incentive to flee,” the new filing said.
Rufai had been under investigation by the IRS for years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its filing Friday.
Attorney Lance Hester, who is representing Rufai locally, said he was not yet familiar enough with the allegations against his client to comment. Rufai’s attorney in New York, where he is being detained, has said Rufai “denies any involvement in these transactions.”
Rufai was arrested this month at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he was allegedly trying to flee the country. He was charged with using the identities of more than 100 Washington residents to file bogus unemployment claims with the Employment Security Department during the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The fraudsters made off with state-provided benefits, as well as the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits authorized by Congress as an emergency measure for out-of-work Americans.
Nearly a year ago, state officials announced that the employment benefits system had been attacked by a coordinated fraud ring out of Nigeria, nicknamed “Scattered Canary” by security researchers. Earlier this year, an independent audit concluded the amount stolen had been nearly $650 million. Washington is the largest known victim of fraud that has hit at least six states, according to the U.S. Secret Service.
Rufai was the first “significant” arrest related to that large-scale fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has said.
Charging documents allege that Rufai used a relatively unsophisticated system of multiple Gmail aliases that routed to the same inbox to file 102 claims for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
Rufai has sought to be released on bail pending a trial in federal court in Tacoma, but prosecutors have argued that he presents “an extreme risk of flight” and requested he be held in custody until trial.