ST. PAUL — A community activist has been sentenced to 14 months in prison for laundering more than $350,000 in proceeds from romance scams and other illegal schemes.
Charles Emeka Obije, 40, of Duluth, received the sentence Wednesday from U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul.
The nonprofit director, former social worker and one-time Duluth School Board candidate pleaded guilty in March to a felony count of conspiracy to commit international money laundering.
Obije acknowledged that he helped funnel significant proceeds stolen from elderly victims and businesses back to family members in his home country of Nigeria. While he was not accused of perpetrating the schemes, Obije was able to provide domestic bank accounts for wire transfers and admitted he “knew or should have known” that he was involved in fraud.
Frank’s sentence, which includes three years of supervised release following the prison term and payment of $356,671 in restitution, fell between opposing recommendations from attorneys.
Simply put, money laundering provides the oxygen that allows these internet scams to flourish. These schemes could not be carried out without the help of people like Obije who are willing to conceal and launder the funds to conspirators operating abroad.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams
The U.S. Attorney’s Office sought two years in custody, while Obije’s lawyers argued probation would sufficiently punish him. The conviction carried 24-30 months in prison under federal guidelines.
“Mr. Obije has a remarkable history of community service, and he has demonstrated his ability to obey all conditions imposed on him by the court and by pretrial services,” defense attorneys John Hughes and Steven Wright told the judge.
“He has tremendous remorse for his actions, and he has agreed to significant restitution. He will best be able to begin paying off that amount if he is allowed to stay in the community and continue working. Probation will also allow Mr. Obije’s teenaged children to keep their father in their life.”
But prosecutors said Obije “played a key role” in allowing overseas scammers to profit “beyond the reach of American law enforcement.”
“By imposing a sentence of 24 months, the court will emphasize that financial crimes will be punished severely, even where the participants are middle-class professionals and not street criminals,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams argued.
“His crime was serious and merits a serious sentence. Simply put, money laundering provides the oxygen that allows these internet scams to flourish. These schemes could not be carried out without the help of people like Obije who are willing to conceal and launder the funds to conspirators operating abroad.”
Court documents indicate Obije accepted substantial funds from at least three older women who were duped into believing they were in long-running online relationships with a man, despite never meeting him in person. The women were convinced to make numerous wire transfers — some taking loans or second mortgages — in order to help the fictitious man with a variety of contrived expenses.
The scams were perpetrated from Nigeria but targeted U.S. citizens on friendship or dating websites and social media platforms. The scammers would create profiles using fake names, locations, images and personas — at times stealing others’ identities — to cultivate relationships with prospective victims.
Among the victims was a 69-year-old California woman who believed she was communicating with a U.S. Army officer who was eligible to receive retirement benefits but his check had mistakenly been sent to Canada. She ended up sending nearly $200,000 to the imposter, who used the name of a real service member, between September 2017 and June 2019.
A 68-year-old Oregon victim told investigators she communicated frequently with a scammer she believed to be from the United Kingdom and working for a Nigerian petroleum company. The man claimed he needed help securing the release of $10 million from a vault and said he would transfer the funds to her.
She ended up losing more than $250,000, with authorities noting she wired $66,000 to Twin Ports Consulting, a company solely registered to Obije, in April 2018. The victim later received threats when she tried to cut off funding.
A 71-year-old California woman also fell prey to the scam a few months after her husband of 43 years died. She believed she was communicating with an oil company engineer who had gone to work overseas on a rig and needed money both to pay for the storage of oil barrels and to get off the ship.
Believing they would soon be able to begin their life together, she began sending iTunes gift cards and, later, substantial wire transfers — with Obije receiving at least $20,000 in November and December 2018.
Federal agents traced the transactions, finding that Obije on several occasions received the funds and then quickly wired the profits to Nigeria, using descriptions such as “family expenses.”
Other schemes included internet phishing, in which businesses are misled into revealing bank account numbers or other sensitive information, and vendor fraud, in which companies are tricked into paying scammers, rather than actual contractors, for various services.
Obije, a naturalized citizen, was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport while attempting to board a flight to Amsterdam last December. He had met just weeks earlier with federal prosecutors regarding his status as a target of the investigation.
He ultimately waived the indictment process and reached a plea agreement that included the restitution payment.
Obije is a former St. Louis County social worker and has most recently worked as program director for the Lincoln Park Resource Center, which provides transitional housing, free clothing, a community garden and other services at the Seafarers Center.
He ran unsuccessfully for the Duluth School Board in 2015 and also applied for a vacancy in 2019.
Defense attorneys said Obije maintains support from other community organizers and “does not intend to stop” his efforts to “bridge cultural gaps and bring people together on the pressing needs of the community.”
The case did result in a loss of reputation and an adjunct teaching position at the College of St. Scholastica, attorneys said, and Obije “accepts that he may have to prove himself again.”
Judge Frank allowed Obije to remain free ahead of a voluntary surrender to prison Jan. 4.