ModernGhana logo
29.10.2006 General News

New SFO boss challenges US court order

By statesman
Francis Nii Annan Sowah, the new SFO bossFrancis Nii Annan Sowah, the new SFO boss
Listen to article

The newly-appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Serious Fraud Office is challenging a decision by the New York Bar Association to suspend him from practicing law in the State of New York, US, "until such time as disciplinary matters pending before the committee have been concluded and until further order of this Court.”

However, the SFO boss has employed the services of some top US attorneys, including Prof Derrick Akrofi of Los Angeles, Prof Victor Essien and Adam Wright, both of New York, to get the court to vacate the decision because their client, who moved to Ghana in 2003, claims he was never served notice of the original complaint brought against him by a client, who claims to have been neglected by the attorney.

The decision to suspend his licence temporarily was taken by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department on Thursday, October 5, 2006. This was two days after Francis Nii Annan Sowah, 54, a lawyer with a PhD in International Economic Law, was appointed to head the SFO.

He was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York on November 13, 1991.

The decision to suspend him involves, primarily, a complaint to the Disciplinary Committee of the First Judicial Department, which covers among other areas, Manhattan, where Dr Sowah had his law office.

The committee opened their investigation in September 2003 after receiving a complaint alleging Dr Sowah had, “improperly handled and neglected an immigration matter.”

Although the compliant is itself not too unusual, with some legal clients unhappy with the outcome of their cases, the complaint and the suspension appear to have been caused by Dr Sowah's decision to return to Ghana.

In 2002 he left to Ghana to sit for the conversional bar examination here to be called to the Ghana Bar. By May 2003, he had migrated back to Accra, after closing down his Manhattan law firm, at 198 Broadway, and handed over the files of his clients to another practicing attorney, Eric Okyere-Darko.

“I went by the rules and wrote to all my clients at the time to inform them about the situation,” Dr Sowah told The Saturday Statesman, yesterday.

But, one former New York lawyer told this paper that “it is quite common for those having problems with their immigration status to use all kinds of means to delay their pending deportation and if possible by accusing their counsel of negligence.”

Dr Sowah said yesterday that he had received no notice of the complaint and did not even know who the aggrieved former client was.
The disciplinary committee held: “The record does not establish whether respondent, in fact, received any of the notices of the charges against him.”

Dr Sowah said yesterday that he had received no notice of the complaint and did not even know who the aggrieved former client was.

His lawyer, Prof Akrofie of Akrofie and Akrofie, LA, described it as just a very "unfortunate situation" of one lawyer passing on his brief to another, where the client has not been happy. Still, that the former lawyer should not be blamed for the alleged negligence.

Referring to the decision, Prof Akrofie says, "The decision itself is very clear that Dr Sowah was not served with the complaint. The decision does also admit that Dr Sowah no longer lives in the US."

He adds, "When he wrapped up his law business in New York he turned over his files to another lawyer, just as the rules say. This is clearly a situation in which somebody had accepted the brief, so if there was any failure the former lawyer should not be drawn into it. Again, the rules say that once you retire from the bar, you are exempt from payment," to renew your licence.

"Another curious omission is that we do not even know who the client is."

However, Prof Akrofie says the lawyers are preparing a motion to set aside the decision.

"Dr Sowah is a person that I have known for some years. He is a man of outstanding integrity. A person with a knack for minute detail. This is just an unfortunate case which we hope to remedy in no time," he says.

The disciplinary committee held: "The record does not establish whether respondent, in fact, received any of the notices of the charges against him. However, 'his failure to inform the Office of Court Administration of changes to his addresses and telephone numbers", as required by Judiciary Law § 468-a, evidences a decision to make himself inaccessible to those to whom he is accountable," (Matter of Bugtti, 7 AD3d 15, 16 [2004].

This conduct constitutes willful noncompliance with a Committee investigation, warranting immediate suspension (see 22 NYCRR 603.4[e][1]; Matter of Bugtti, supra; Matter of Gujral, 307 AD2d 28 [2003])."

From our own checks, the rule, 22 NYCRR 603.4(e)(1)(i) involves "willful failure to cooperate with committee's investigation."

The five-man decision, presided by Justice Buckley, also suspended Sowah from the practice of law in the American state "for his failure to cooperate with the Committee in its investigation of professional misconduct and failure to register as required by 22 NYCRR 118.1 and Judiciary Law § 468-a."

The rule requires licence to practice to be renewed every two years. But, Dr Sowah says he chose not to renew his licence after it expired in 2004 because he had then moved to Ghana.

According to the judicial records, "The Committee opened their investigation in September 2003 after receiving a complaint alleging respondent [Dr Sowah] had improperly handled and neglected an immigration matter. Around October 2002, respondent became unreachable by telephone and stopped renting an office at his business address. In May 2003, the client [the complainant] received an undated letter from respondent stating that he was no longer practicing law and had transferred his immigration file to another attorney."

It continues, "Respondent has failed to respond to the Committee's letters sent to him in New York, to his home address in New Jersey and to Ghana seeking a written answer to the complaint filed against him. The Committee's numerous attempts to locate respondent were unsuccessful. During its efforts to locate respondent, the Committee learned that his mail was being forwarded to another attorney, who advised that respondent was no longer practicing law and had moved out of country."

But, every attempt to contact him, even through the Ghana Bar Association, was apparently unsuccessful. "Consequently, respondent was served by publication in the New York Law Journal pursuant to an order of this Court. Respondent has not submitted a response to the Committee's motion to suspend," the disciplinary committee noted.

But, Dr Sowah says he finds it odd, because though he had moved, he could have been reached in Ghana with a little more effort.

However, the new SFO executive director comes to the job with a rich CV of global experience since he completed the University of Ghana in 1976 and went on to complete his doctorate in 1982 at the London School of Economics, University of London, UK.

From April 2006, he has served as Special Advisor to the Minister of Communications, Mike Oquaye and the project co-ordinator to the Ministry on the eGhana Project of the World Bank.

Before then, he served from April 2005 as Special Advisor to the then Minister of Energy. Dr Sowah played an instrumental role in the deregulation of the petroleum sector and the ongoing reforms of the power sector.

His legal experience spans teaching, research, practice and adjudication. His specific areas of expertise include contracts, commercial transactions, administrative law, policy and regulatory frameworks, criminal law and jurisprudence.

He operated his own law firm in Manhattan, New York for 8 years until 2003. Before going into private practice in 1995, Dr Sowah was an adjudicator in Newark, State of New Jersey, for four years, working for the Department of Labour there.

Dr Sowah has also served as a law lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Management & Public Administration, when he first returned to Ghana. He had earlier lectured at the University of Benin, Nigeria and University of Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Join our Newsletter