John Ameh, Abuja
The three members of the House of Representatives exonerated of the sexual misconduct allegations levelled against them by the US Government have picked lawyers to handle their $1bn suit against the latter and its agents, The PUNCH learnt on Sunday.
The lawyers are to file the suit in the US while the lawmakers would continue to communicate with them through electronic means from Nigeria since they are barred for now from entering the US.
The affected members are the House’s Deputy Chairman, Committee on Petroleum Resources (Upstream), Mr. Terse Mark-Gbillah (APC, Benue); Mr. Samuel Ikon (PDP, Akwa Ibom); and Mr. Mohammed Garba-Gololo (APC, Bauchi).
A former US ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle, had accused the three lawmakers of committing the alleged misconduct during a leadership training visit to the US last April, prompting the Nigerian legislature to call for an investigation.
The House had exonerated the lawmakers in October 2016 after a report by its Joint Committees on Ethics/Privileges and Foreign Relations found no wrongdoing on their part.
The narrative changed in favour of Mark-Gbillah, Garba-Gololo and Ikon after the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, appeared before the committees on July 21 to testify that the US did not produce any concrete evidence to prove the allegations.
Entwistle too failed to appear before the committees while a hotel housekeeper, who alleged that Garba-Gololo “grabbed” her, also declined to testify.
Mark-Gbillah, who spoke for the lawmakers, told The PUNCH that the lawyers had been identified and that efforts were on to finalise consultations on the suit.
However, he neither gave the names of the lawyers nor the firms from where they would be hired.
Mark-Gbillah said that the US visas revoked in the wake of the allegations had yet to be returned to them.
However, he stated that the lawmakers could still visit the US in the course of the hearing of the suit if a court order seeks to have them brought to the US physically.
Mark-Gbillah said, “We have identified lawyers willing to take the case and are currently planning for the required funds to initiate the action (for damages.)
“We will communicate with our lawyers via other media for now, but we can be granted entry by the court if we are required to appear in person.
“We won’t be willing to disclose costs at this time.”
Earlier in October last year, the lawmakers had told The PUNCH that they could ask for damages ranging from $1bn to $10bn, depending on the final recommendation of their lawyers.
Apart from the US Government, the lawmakers added that Entwistle, the Marriot Hotel, the US Embassy and their agents would be sued for damages.
This will be in addition to demanding what Mark-Gbillah called “an internationally-published apology.”
The House committees made three recommendations to the session that exonerated the lawmakers. It was presided over by the Deputy Speaker, Mr. Yussuff Lasun.
It read, “That Hon. Mohammed Garba Gololo, Hon. Terseer Mark-Gbillah and Hon. Samuel Ikon are cleared of and exonerated from the allegations levelled against them by the United States Ambassador to Nigeria in his June 9, 2016 letter to the Rt. Hon. Speaker, for want of evidence.
“That in the light of the foregoing, the Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs do engage with the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, with a view to finding a seamless resolution of the domestic fallout of this unfortunate incident as it relates to Hon. Mohammed Garba Gololo, Hon. Terseer Mark-Gbillah and Hon. Samuel Ikon.
“That the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do write to remind the United States Embassy of the need to always adopt the official channel of communications in its dealings with any organ or institution of government.”
The House adopted all the three recommendations soon after the Lead Chairman, Mr. Nicholas Ossai, briefed the members on the findings of the investigation.
He stated, “The committee was not availed of any concrete evidence outside the confidential letter the ambassador wrote to the Speaker.
“There was no video, audio or any form of evidence presented before the committee to justify the allegations.”
While testifying on July 21, Onyeama had told the committee how he encountered Entwistle over the allegations, but could not get “concrete evidence.”
He explained how the former ambassador also apologised for not using the official diplomatic channel of routing his letter to the Speaker (Mr. Yakubu Dogara) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The minister had testified further, “I asked him about the evidence that emboldened them to arrive at the type of conclusions they did in the letter.
“The ambassador stressed that it was factual that there were allegations, but that he was not passing any judgment.
“I asked, ‘Who made the allegations?’ He said a hotel maid or cleaner, who said Garba-Gololo made inappropriate request and approached her in the hotel.
“But, he now made it clear that the housekeeper would not testify; that she does not want to testify.
“I was surprised that the person who made such a serious allegation was not willing to testify.
“For the parking lot attendants, the ambassador said they identified the lawmakers in photographs.
“I replied that there is clearly a possibility of a legal proceeding for defamation because I thought there was stronger evidence. Again, he apologised that his only point of writing Dogara was to pass information about those allegations.”
Garba-Gololo, Mark-Gbillah and Ikon were in the US to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Programme on Good Governance organised by the US Government.
The three legislators were on a team of 10 members nominated to attend the leadership programme, which took place in Cleveland, Ohio, between April 7 and 13 last year.
While there, they allegedly solicited the services of prostitutes through car park attendants and assaulted a female hotel housekeeper.
In the June 9 letter to Dogara, the former US ambassador stated, “It is with regret that I must bring to your attention the following situation.
“Ten members of the Nigerian National Assembly recently travelled to Cleveland, Ohio, as participants in the International Visitor Leadership Programme on good governance. We received troubling allegations regarding the behaviour of three members of the delegation to the US Government’s flagship professional exchange programme.
“The US Department of State and the Cleveland Council on World Affairs received reports from employees of the Cleveland hotel where the representatives stayed, alleging the representatives engaged in the following behaviour.”