Ex-Bury star jailed for charity fraud
21 January 2019, 13:35 | Updated: 21 January 2019, 13:37
A famous sporting family has been "shamed" for milking a charity set up for poor African children, it can now be reported.
Ex-footballers Efe Sodje, 46, and Stephen Sodje, 43, and ex-rugby player Bright Sodje, 52, were found guilty and jailed for siphoning off money from their family charity, the Sodje Sports Foundation (SSF).
The fraud trial had heard how the Sodjes set up their charity in 2009 to help provide sporting facilities to youngsters in Nigeria.
Ashley Carson, a businessman and director of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, and one of the city's MPs, Clive Betts, were recruited to give the charity respectability - but when they asked for bank statements and financial reports, they were fobbed off.
Once the pair resigned as trustees and directors in 2013, "the amount of money being transferred to the Sodje family increased dramatically", prosecutor Julian Christopher QC said.
Cash raised at black tie dinners, auctions, charity football matches and a clay pigeon shoot went into Sodje bank accounts.
The SSF held a charity football match at Sheffield Wednesday's grounds in 2009, and arranged a fundraising dinner at Charlton Football Club in September 2010.
In 2011, there was a gala dinner at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester for the SSF and the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital - a charity supported by England women's football coach Phil Neville.
Efe handed out Easter eggs - provided by the hospital - to child cancer patients, while five Sodje brothers attended a £150-a-head black tie dinner.
The event raised almost £11,500, but Mr Christopher said: "Not a penny went to the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital."
Sentencing, Judge Michael Topolski QC told the defendants: "You have brought shame upon yourselves and your family."
He sentenced Stephen Sodje, of Bexley, to two years and six months in prison, saying he lied repeatedly to the jury and was a "self-regarding and arrogant man with a strong sense of self-entitlement".
The court heard he received about £30,000 from the charity funds, but continued to protest his innocence, describing it as expenses or wages.
His lawyer Kieran Galvin said the conviction was "shattering" and a "massive fall from grace" for the defendant, who now worked as a carer and has two young step-daughters.
Father-of-one Efe Sodje, who was "the face" of the charity, was given 18 months in jail, having received around £7,500 plus an unknown amount of cash from the clay pigeon shoot.
He collapsed in the dock and staggered away supported on each side by officers.
Bright Sodje, of Sale, Greater Manchester, was jailed for 21 months for his part in "milking the charity".
He had received some £3,000, but also signed cheques to other family members totalling about £18,000.
The judge said: "All three of these defendants in various ways exploited their own and their families' reputation, not only for the benefit of the poor children of the Niger valley but also for their own benefit.
"In this case, the defendants were all well known and respected men, particularly in the world of football and sport both here and in Africa.
"One (Efe) had the honour of playing for his country in the World Cup finals.
"I have no doubt to some extent at least it was that form of respect that made it possible or more likely that their fans and admirers would make donations to the charity that had been formed by them in their name."
He said "at least £63,000 has been shown to have been received by the fund", but added it was important to note that did not include cash donations, and the defendants "went out of their way" to ensure that proper records were not kept.
Any good works done in the past would be "forever tainted by their dishonest and disreputable conduct", he added.
National Crime Agency deputy director Chris Farrimond said: "Bright, Efe and Stephen Sodje promoted themselves as generous, community-minded figures when they were knowingly defrauding people who thought they were helping deprived children in Nigeria.
"NCA financial investigators built a detailed picture of the movement of money in and out of the foundation and showed beyond doubt that for most of the foundation's existence there was no charitable purpose."
The brothers' convictions in 2017 can only now be reported at the conclusion of a separate money laundering case involving Efe and ex-Premiership star Sam Sodje, 39, who was cleared over the fraud.
Following a retrial, ex-Reading and Nigeria defender Sam Sodje, from Dartford in Kent, was also found not guilty of taking part in a scam in which bank accounts were used to channel cash from companies around the world in 2013.
Firms in Colombia, India, Italy and Abu Dhabi were tricked into sending a total of £80,000 after being sent emailed invoices from fake suppliers.
Efe Sodje, of Cheadle, Greater Manchester, was cleared of money laundering last year but Emmanuel Ehikhamen, 53, of south-east London, and Andrew Oruma, 50, of Bexley, south London, were convicted.
Another footballing brother Akpo Sodje, 37, was implicated but moved to Dubai and has refused to return to Britain to be interviewed.