Mountains of bank records, computer records, fake identities, videotapes, voice recordings and testimony from nearly 60 witnesses weren’t enough to persuade a federal jury to convict two former Minnesota bankers charged in an international conspiracy that stole thousands of identities and defrauded banks from coast to coast of more than $50 million.
After 2½ days of deliberation, jurors Tuesday convicted two men from California and New York of conspiring in the fraud ring with roots in West Africa and more than 200 U.S. participants.
But jurors found Nana Osei-Tutu, a former U.S. Bank employee originally from Ghana, and Fata Leeta Sarnor David, a former Wells Fargo employee originally from Liberia, not guilty on all counts.
“I am so happy! All the prayers from my family and friends have gone through,” Osei-Tutu said after he left the courtroom. He called his mother in Ghana and when he heard her voice, began jumping up and down.
“Not guilty, Mom! Not guilty!”
David declined to comment after the verdict and dashed toward her husband for a hug.
“God is great to me. Thank you, Jesus!” he said, tears in his eyes.
Speaking for the U.S. attorney’s office, Jeanne Cooney said, “While we stand behind the case presented against all four defendants in the recent trial, we respect the jury’s decision to acquit two of them. Nevertheless, we will continue to pursue the investigation into this matter.”
Exhibits documented fraud
The verdict capped an 11-day trial in which the government introduced 248 exhibits and presented dozens of witnesses.
Prosecutors said the scheme was centered in Minnesota, ran from 2006 to 2011 and had operations in California, Massachusetts, Arizona, New York and Texas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Anaya said the organization had managers, middle managers, bank insiders and “runners.” Julian Okeayainneh, 43, of Colton, Calif., was a manager, she said, responsible for supplying thousands of fake identification documents.
She described co-defendant Olugbenga Temidago Adeniran , 35, who split his time between New York and Minneapolis, as a midlevel manager who also defrauded credit card companies with purloined accounts.
Okeayainneh was found guilty of 11 counts of bank fraud or attempted bank fraud, six counts of mail fraud, two counts of wire fraud, four counts of aggravated identity fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and trafficking in false “authentication information.” He was acquitted on one count of aggravated identity fraud.
Adeniran was found guilty of four counts of bank fraud or attempted bank fraud and four counts of aggravated identity theft.
Both men were found guilty of conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
Louis Stephens, special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service in Minneapolis, said in an interview that the investigation has been his office’s top priority for the past two years. He credited the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force — made up of local, state and federal agencies — with the success of an investigation that’s been dubbed “Operation Starburst.”
To date, he said, 24 of the 29 people charged have either pleaded guilty or been convicted. Six of the eight bankers charged have pleaded guilty.
“We have numerous other suspects, including some bank employees,” Stephens said. “We are definitely pursuing other cells.”
In her closing arguments last week, Anaya ticked off the crimes she said the defendants participated in: bank fraud, credit card fraud, identity theft, takeovers of home equity lines of credit. She said bank insiders protected the ring by watching for red flags that would trigger investigations or lead authorities to the ringleaders.
“We saw a global impact of victims in this case,” Anaya said. “Eighty-seven hundred individuals, around the world.”
For his part, Okeayainneh’s attorney, Jean Brandl, argued that his client “is not the queen bee; he’s a wannabe.”
Okeayainneh was caught with a storage locker full of incriminating evidence. “He’s the ID guy,” Brandl said. “It’s like he’s a hoarder of useless identity information.”
Daniel Mohs acknowledged that his client, Adeniran, was guilty of making purchases with fraudulent credit cards. But he said he did it on his own, not as part of a grand conspiracy.
The Minneapolis defendants
David, 39, testified that she came to the United States in 2002, seeking political asylum from her native Liberia. She had a degree in marketing management, and earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Phoenix in 2009. She had started working for Wells Fargo in 2007 and earned many accolades and bonuses.
She denied knowing anything about the conspiracy.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” David said when she testified, noting that she’s been unable to work in her field because of the charges.
Myles Schneider, her attorney, told jurors that David did nothing more than her job. “She did not provide inside information to anybody.”
Osei-Tutu, 36, testified that he was born in Ghana. He has a sister in Savage and a brother in Atlanta. His father, a physician in Ghana, earned his medical degree from the University of California-Los Angeles. His mother formerly worked for Ghana’s central bank.
Osei-Tutu became a U.S. citizen in 2008, is married and has two children. He denied knowing any of his co-defendants.
He said when two members of the conspiracy tried to open an account at U.S. Bank, he reported his suspicions to his manager. A year later, when one of the men returned in an undercover capacity, he gave the man phony account information that couldn’t be used, and again told management.
Investigators accused him of taking a bribe, but Osei-Tutu said he turned in the money and didn’t pocket any of it.
Glen Bruder, Osei-Tutu’s lawyer, argued that Osei-Tutu was duped by professional criminals, “like hundreds of other bankers across the country.” He accused investigators of believing so much in their case that they were blind to his innocence.
After the verdict, Osei-Tutu said he had no hard feelings toward bank employees who testified. But he does feel anger toward the government.
“They took one year of my life,” he said.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493