Donald A. Latella is the CEO of North Park Commodities, LLC, a commodities trading firm based in Easton, Connecticut, United States of America.
In this interview, Latella narrated to The Herald how he was allegedly defrauded of approximately $16 million by one Umar Bida, a Nigerian business associate who is currently being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
EFCC first arraigned Bida alongside seven others – Truth Igogori, Ifenyinwa Nwankwesiri and Ogechukwu Obaji, Universal Contractors, Lambda Energy Services Limited, Double Wonder Concept Limited, and ICS Energy Services Limited – for crude oil scam before Justice Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court sitting in Maitama, Abuja in February 2017.
Since then, not much has been heard about the case.
Latella spoke about his long wait for justice. Excerpt…
Could you give a brief background into North Park Commodities, LLC’s operations especially as it relates to business dealings in Nigeria? And how did your company, North Park Commodities LLC, come to be associated with Umar Audu Bida?
I have been in business since 1998. I started with miscellaneous brokers selling BLCO and refined fuels. I started with the refined fuels with Rosneft affiliates and other refineries selling and purchasing Jet fuel and Diesel.
North Park, LLC is the parent company and North Park Commodities, LLC is a subsidiary of North Park, LLC. We also have an Aviation division, and we have an Energy Company.
I have been working heavily in Nigeria since 2014 when a Nigerian Broker living in the US by the name of OBI introduced me to Umar Bida. Now this broker was an Attorney but was disbarred for doing something unethical, but he did remain functioning like a Mandate for Mr. Bida. I would prefer not to disclose his name because he lives now in the US and has five children. He is a very nice person and honestly, he was just as frustrated at Mr. Bida as we were so I would prefer to keep him out of the limelight as they say.
You said that your company was defrauded in a business dealing with Bida and some other accused persons currently being prosecuted by the EFCC. Could you shed more light on this claim?
The requirement at the time was for us to supply Mr. Bida via his Banker an Instrument for $100,000,000 US dollars cash backed and confirmed. Mr. Bida presented lifting documents and an allocation holder letter that appeared legitimate to us at the time, so we proceeded with our first loaded fresh Vessel slated for Rotterdam. Mr. Bida was friends with his Banker and confirmed that his banker accepted our Instrument. The Vessel was presold to my exit buyer who had the Inspection team from SGS waiting at the dock in Rotterdam as the Vessel arrived.
The issue in this transaction started when Mr. Bida told me to ignore the captain’s notification that he was approaching Rotterdam Port for Inspection and discharge. Mr. Bida said he would respond and take care of everything. We waited for the Vessel to anchor which it did, but it did not communicate any message to us to board for Inspection. The next thing we know is the Vessel lifted anchor and discharged into someone else’s tanks while my exit buyer looked on from the dock in disbelief. I was selling the product with a $2.00 profit per barrel based on 2 million Barrels after commissions were paid and that would have netted me $4,000,000 US dollars net. I am not quite sure where the newspapers or the media and even the EFCC got information that we placed $1M down for the Vessel when it was a $100,000,000 US Dollar Documentary letter of credit.
This process was explained as an error and Mr. Bida claimed he would immediately obtain a new Vessel for us. This scenario repeated itself (4) times with four different Vessels. Each time Mr. Bida supplied cargo documents for each Vessel but what we did not know is that him and (7) other Companies conspired to sell the product to various sources in Rotterdam. Mr. Bida had duplicate documents drafted and now he had lifting documents in my Company name and the name of the company he sold the fuel to. Basically, using me for our Instrument to load the Vessels every time. Ammeh O. Ammeh representing 1st and 5th defendants and R. O. Attabo standing for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th defendants, through oral applications prayed the court to admit their clients to bail.
A point you have consistently made is that you did not lose $1 million as claimed by the EFCC in a case before the Federal High Court of Nigeria but $16 million. How is that?
To reiterate, the media and the EFCC somehow had misinformation on the loss. It was not a $1 million US Dollar upfront payment. We literally had a $100,000,000 US dollar DLC instrument placed with Mr. Bida’s banker. Now remember the Instrument was placed and his banker confirmed the Instrument and that is how Mr. Bida leveraged to load (4) vessels to Rotterdam carrying 2 million barrels each. The Banker when confronted after we stopped going along with this after four lost vessels claimed he was only the custodian of the Instrument. Now he was not the custodian when they loaded (4) Vessels and sailed them out to Rotterdam it was only afterwards that he became the “custodian”. In addition, one of the brokers in this conspiracy to defraud was a banker at Main Street Bank. From what I understand there are (2) bankers that were charged but that is all I know.
The 62-year-old suspect, who was picked up by EFCC operatives on Tuesday, September 15, at his residence on Gumel Road, Kaduna, was in possession of fake documents pertaining to the lifting of crude by the vessels, MT Antarctic, MT Sonangol Namibe and MT Caped Bowen.
You also have expressed reservations about EFCC’s handling of the case. What do you think the anti-graft agency can do better?
My issue with the EFCC is that this case has been ongoing since 2014. It took months just to get the EFCC to acknowledge our complaint. I think the EFCC should have someone dedicated to responding to formal complaints with a Petition and scanned documents with an acknowledgement letter and a case number. I also think they should make sure they know the exact numbers when it comes to dollar figures. I do not even know where the $ 1 Million dollar story came from. Each vessel would have netted us $4,000,000 US dollars in net profit based on the current market selling price to us and our exit buyer purchasing this fuel from us. Our exit spent many thousands of dollars with the Inspection company to reserve time for an inspection only to walk away empty handed.
What in your opinion would serve the interest of justice in the case?
I appreciate you asking me this last question because after almost (7) years nobody has ever had the courtesy of asking me this question. I believe justice would be for all (cool Defendants to be forced to pay restitution to my company for my loss. I am 63 years old and semi-retired and placed my heart and soul into these four vessels only to be defrauded by a group of greedy CEOs. I even offered for Mr. Bida and others to settle with me out of respect for me placing the instrument that help lined their pockets. My Attorney at the time Mr. Patrick Etim offered a settlement to their Attorneys and they said they will fight this to the very end. Do I want to see anyone go to prison? No, but I do want restitution if that answers the question in a more direct way.
My question is why Companies want to defraud someone just to make a little extra profit. I have many friends and associates in Nigeria and in the US, and they have all encouraged me to keep this fight up. The EFCC has not once ever contacted me to advise me of the progress of the proceedings, not once. My Attorney went to several court hearings where the Defendants attempted to dismiss the case, but the Judge denied their request on all levels. Since then, the court docket has kicked this case down the road for almost (7) years. I do know in 2018 the prosecutor wanted the case transferred to another judge, there was some form of politics going on and accusations against the Judge, but I did not get involved and just waited for progress. It is going to be 2022, we started this process in 2017 even though it started prior to that. 2017 is when the EFCC acknowledged the case.
In conclusion, all I want is some form of settlement from this group of (Companies that conspired against me. This has been many hard years of attempting to gain traction and I periodically call my Attorney to see if there is any chance of obtaining a settlement. I think it is so unfair to work so hard and have people just literally steal from you like you are not worthy of making a living. I have never been discouraged from working with my associates in Nigeria because I know this is the type of fraud that makes it difficult for them to sell and purchase product. I cannot let this crush my spirit or move me away from working with your Country. I refuse to allow stereotypes to speak negatively about Nigeria because every country has their bad apples, and we cannot lose faith in humanity. I pray everyday that a Judge will bring these people to the front of the line and make them settle with me. I pray for that everyday. I was literally ready for retirement then until this happened.
Now you have the real story of what happened in these transactions and what I have been going through to keep it alive. Of course, I would love to obtain my full profit which would equate to a lot more money today, but I would settle for less just to close the books. I think out of (Companies they can pool their money together and make this right. From what I understand they are gambling that they get away with this crime, but the question is if they do not, I believe the Judge might give them very long prison sentences.