Allegations of bribery and illegal exports of stolen luxury cars to Nigeria through the Port of Charleston has drawn one guilty plea and a request for a jury trial, according to federal court documents.
The case is part of a new effort to crack down on shipping-related crimes at the port, said Rhett DeHart, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Charleston.
"Export fraud prosecutions have become a priority given the increasing importance of the Port of Charleston to the state economy," said DeHart, who is prosecuting the vehicle export case.
Last week, Tolulope Rahman Salam pleaded guilty to one charge of smuggling goods from the United States — a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
As part of a plea deal, prosecutors have agreed to drop six other charges. His sentencing will take place in three or four months.
A second defendant, Ibrahim Shehu, has asked for a jury trial on seven charges including smuggling and bribery. His trial date has not been scheduled.
According to court records, Shehu and Salam operate a car exporting business in Atlanta that had been illegally sending cars from Charleston to Nigeria, which imposes high tariffs on imported vehicles.
The men were caught in an undercover sting in which they paid bribes to a federal agent who posed as a corrupt U.S. Customs officer, prosecutors said.
Shehu and Salam told the agent that they wanted to submit false export documents to reduce the Nigerian tariffs, which amounted to about $20,000 per car, according to a court hearing Thursday.
The bogus documents included titles that made it appear the exported cars were old and damaged when, in fact, they included a pair of Mercedes sedans, a BMW X5 SUV and a Bentley.
Prosecutors say the men offered the agent bribes totaling $1,500 per car to ensure the shipping containers weren't inspected and the export documents were approved.
Among the cars the men attempted to export, court records show, were vehicles stolen from Atlanta-area car rental companies.