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NEWS RELEASE

OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY

WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI


MATT J. WHITWORTH


Contact Don Ledford, Public Affairs ● (816) 426-4220 ● 400 East Ninth Street, Room 5510 ● Kansas City, MO 64106

www.usdoj.gov/usao/mow/index.html


SEPTEMBER 28, 2009

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


ETHNIC GROCERY OWNER PLEADS GUILTY TO

STRUCTURING FINANCIAL TRANSACTIONS


            KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Matt J. Whitworth, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that the former owner of The African Market in Kansas City, Mo., pleaded guilty in federal court today to structuring financial transactions.


            Emmanuel Chinedu Okonta, 48, of Kansas City, Mo., pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Ortrie D. Smith this afternoon to the charges contained in an April 22, 2009, federal indictment.


            Okonta owned West African Groceries, which did business as The African Market, an ethnic grocery store in Kansas City. The African Market earned a significant portion of its income through operating a wire transfer business as an agent for Western Union and MoneyGram.


            Okonta admitted that he structured or assisted in structuring a series of financial transactions totaling $100,000 for the purpose of evading federal reporting requirements. On each of five separate occasions in November and December 2005, Okonta sent eight wire transfers of $2,500 each to China via Western Union. In each instance, all eight transfers were completed with a 45-minute time period. The handwriting on all of the statements appears similar, and the transactions appear to have been conducted by the same individual using different names. Okonta did not file any Suspicious Activity Reports or Currency Transaction Reports to report the suspicious activity.


            Under federal law, cash transactions totaling more than $10,000 must be reported on a Currency Transaction Report and suspicious cash transfers totaling more than $2,000 must be reported on a Suspicious Activity Report. Money transfers in excess of $3,000 must be documented.


            According to today’s plea agreement, the IRS initiated an examination of African Market in January 2003, which revealed violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA Patriot Act. Okonta was not complying with federal requirements concerning suspicious activity by his clients wiring funds through Western Union. Okonta also violated the federal requirements for obtaining and recording identification from customers. During most transactions, Okonta and his wife were not checking customers’ identification, were allowing customers to send funds using aliases, and generally were in non-compliance of required record-keeping rules, the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA Patriot Act. Okonta agreed to create an Anti-Money Laundering plan to be in compliance with federal law, and to ensure that all of his employees are familiar with the law.


            In June 2004, Western Union banned Okonta personally from utilizing their services based upon the high volume of wire transfers he was conducting. Okonta then started using his African name, Chinedu Okonta, to send transactions. Nearly 200 Currency Transaction Reports have been filed against Okonta or The African Market by Western Union for transactions in excess of $10,000. A bulk of the funds were sent to Nigeria.


            By pleading guilty today, Okonta also agreed to forfeit to the government $100,000, representing the amount that was illegally structured.


            Under federal statutes, Okonta is subject to a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.


            This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Curt Bohling. It was investigated by IRS-Criminal Investigation.

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This news release, as well as additional information about the office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, is available on-line at

www.usdoj.gov/usao/mow/index.html