Duluth nonprofit director guilty of money laundering
Charles Obije received substantial funds from at least three older women caught up in romance scams, forwarding the money to family in Nigeria.
DULUTH — A community activist and one-time school board candidate helped launder more than $350,000 in stolen proceeds from online romance scams and other schemes.
Charles Emeka Obije, 40, of Duluth, pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul to conspiracy to commit international money laundering.
Court documents state that 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 — sometimes taking loans or second mortgages — in order to help the fictitious man with a variety of contrived expenses.
While Obije was not accused of perpetrating the schemes, federal prosecutors said he was able to provide domestic bank accounts for the wire transfers. He then sent the bulk of the stolen funds to his father and brother in his home country of Nigeria.
Obije was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport while attempting to board a flight to Amsterdam on Dec. 28. He had met just weeks earlier with the U.S. Attorney's Office regarding his status as a target of the investigation and the possibility of reaching a plea agreement.
The defendant is a former St. Louis County social worker who most recently has worked as program director at the Lincoln Park Resource Center. He ran unsuccessfully for the Duluth School Board in 2015 and also applied for a vacancy in 2019.
Obije, who is free on bond pending sentencing, could face prison time. He referred questions to defense attorney John Hughes.
"I can’t talk right now other than to say that Charles is a longtime member of the nonprofit community and takes full responsibility," Hughes told the News Tribune.
According to court documents:
The scams were perpetrated from Nigeria, targeting U.S. citizens who were looking for romantic partners or friendship on dating websites and social media platforms. The scammers would create profiles using fake names, locations, images and personas — sometimes stealing others' identities to cultivate relationships with prospective victims.
A 69-year-old California woman told investigators she met a man online in December 2016 who said he was an officer in the U.S. Army and was eligible to receive retirement benefits, but his check had mistakenly been sent to Canada.
He first asked the victim for $100 to help acquire the check, then continued to seek additional funds to help get the check past customs. Internal Revenue Service agents later discovered the profile was based on an actual Army member who was deployed overseas.
That victim, who took out a loan secured by her house, ended up transferring $199,475 to accounts controlled by Obije and co-conspirators between September 2017 and June 2019. 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."
A 71-year-old California woman fell prey to the scam a few months after her husband of 43 years died. She described meeting a man named "Morris Walter" on an online dating website, and told investigators she spoke with him daily. Despite never seeing him, she indicated she was in a relationship with him.
"Walter" told the woman he lived in the San Francisco area and worked as an engineer for an oil company. He said he 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. Sending the money, he promised, would allow them to begin their life together.
The victim started by purchasing approximately $1,800 in iTunes gift cards, eventually agreeing to wire large sums. She was directed to send funds to several people, including Obije. Investigators found that he received at least $20,000 from the woman in November and December 2018, forwarding $17,030 of it to his father in Lagos, Nigeria.
The woman told agents she eventually cut off contact after "Walter" called her at one point and threatened to have a friend hack into her accounts if she did not send more money.
A 68-year-old Oregon victim said she communicated via phone, email and text message with a "Ken Ebe," who said he was from the United Kingdom and worked at the Nigerian Petroleum Co. She believed she was engaged to the fictitious man, who was arranging for them to get married.
The woman said "Ebe" asked her for help in securing the release of $10 million he had stored in a vault, promising that the money would be transferred to her if she would pay the taxes and fees. Someone claiming to be an Interpol agent contacted her, providing instructions to wire the money to Twin Ports Consulting, which investigators learned is a company solely registered to Obije.
The victim sent $66,000 to the company in April 2018 — $53,070 of which Obije promptly sent to Nigeria. The woman, who was contacted by various others claiming to be an attorney in Nigeria and a banker who was arrested in the U.S., ended up losing more than $250,000 in total.
"When she tried to stop sending money, individuals involved in the scam threatened her and said they were watching her house and monitoring her phone calls," the complaint states, adding that the victim had to take out a second mortgage on her house, postpone retirement and experience deteriorating health as she has been unable to afford medical treatment.
Obije, after being arrested while trying to leave the country, subsequently reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and waived an indictment process.
"In an effort to conceal the true source and destination of the proceeds, Obije and other conspirators allowed proceeds of the scheme to be deposited into U.S. bank accounts in their names," the agreement states. "Using these accounts, Obije and others withdrew cash and made subsequent transfers to co-conspirators, including co-conspirators located in Nigeria, in order to disguise the nature, source, ownership and control of the fraud proceeds."
In total, prosecutors said Obije helped launder $356,671 from various scams, which also included business email compromise schemes. He said he did not inquire about the source of the money but "knew or should have known that the funds were the proceeds of fraud."
Only one other party in the scheme has been publicly identified: Obije's ex-sister-in-law, Ijeoma Chantavong, who pleaded guilty in October to the same charge and basic factual allegations.
The U.S. Attorney's Office indicated it will seek a prison term of up to 30 months for Obije, while he is free to "recommend whatever sentence he deems appropriate." Judge Donovan Frank did not immediately schedule a sentencing date.
Hughes confirmed that Obije is a U.S. citizen, which indicates he would not face deportation.
Obije is still listed as program director on the website of the Lincoln Park Resource Center, which provides transitional housing, free clothing, a community garden and other services at the Seafarers Center. The Rev. Doug Paulson, Seafarers director, could not be reached Thursday.
Obije had a 2004 conviction in Ashland County for misdemeanor theft of a credit card.