U.S. prosecutors are seeking to seize New York City penthouses, Hollywood and Beverly Hills mansions, a private jet and even some future proceeds from the award-winning movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” in a forfeiture
case that alleges a breathtaking level of fraud surrounding a Malaysian-government investment fund.
In total, the Justice Department is seeking to recover more than $1 billion in assets that prosecutors allege are ill-gotten gains from an effort by Malaysian officials and their associates to misappropriate money from the government-owned fund.
That fund, known as 1MDB, was supposed to pursue projects to benefit residents of Malaysia but was used instead to sate the expensive tastes of those with power over it, officials said. The case is the largest single action in the history of the Justice Department’s kleptocracy initiative, which seeks to stem international corruption by reclaiming the money it produces.
“Unfortunately, sadly, tragically, a number of corrupt 1MDB officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said.
The complaint alleges that more than $730 million of what seemed to be 1MDB money was ultimately routed to the personal bank account of “Malaysian Official 1,” a thinly veiled reference to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. It is unclear what the money was spent on, and the Malaysian attorney general has asserted that $620 million was returned.
The civil forfeiture complaint undeniably puts the Malaysian government, viewed by the Obama administration as a key Asian ally, in an uncomfortable position. The administration has worked to foster closer ties with Malaysia as part of a strategy to cultivate partners in Asia who can act as a counterweight to China. In 2014, Najib was even invited by President Obama to go golfing in Hawaii.
Asked about the matter on Wednesday, Lynch said Malaysia “does continue to be an ally of ours,” particularly on counterterrorism matters. She said officials hope one day to return the funds, if they are forfeited, to Malaysia, so that they could be used “for the benefit of the people there.” That process could take years — meaning the country’s leadership might be different — and in the past, the Justice Department has routed funds through trusted nonprofit groups or other organizations to prevent further corruption.
Since news of the scandal broke in Malaysia, Najib has called the issue an “unnecessary distraction” and asserted that no crime was committed. The country’s attorney general said his own investigation supported that assertion and that the transfer of $681 million into Najib’s personal bank account was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family unconnected to corruption.
Najib has faced calls for resignation in his home country, and the Wall Street Journal reported recently that he ousted two politicians from the ruling party who were critical of his handling of the matter.
No one answered the phone at the Malaysian Embassy on Wednesday, and an email message bounced back. No one returned an email message sent to the 1MDB company. Najib had a “position of authority” with 1MDB, including the power to approve all hirings and firings from its board of directors and senior management team, according to the complaint.
The Justice Department has taken a special interest in international corruption in recent years and months, assigning 10 new prosecutors to work exclusively on Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases, while the FBI has created three new squads dedicated to international corruption. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said Wednesday that corruption abroad “presents a threat to our economy” and “fuels the growth of criminal enterprises” and that the United States thinks that stopping it improves national security because it creates a more stable world.
In the Malaysian case, Lynch said prosecutors moved to seize assets that went through the U.S. financial system and thus gave federal prosecutors jurisdiction to act. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said the case “should really send a message to kleptocrats, to corrupt officials around the word, that the U.S. is not a safe haven for their stolen money.”
Federal prosecutors did not charge anyone criminally in connection with the alleged misdeeds. In a series of extensive complaints filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, they merely sought to take control of assets that were a part of corrupt schemes.
Lynch said the $1 billion in assets the Justice Department is seeking represents just a portion of the more than $3.5 billion prosecutors think was stolen from 1MDB. Federal prosecutors alleged that the fraud spanned from 2009 to at least 2013 and that those involved used complicated financial transactions involving banks in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore to hide their wrongdoing.
In 2012, for example, 1MDB officials diverted more than $1.3 billion raised through two bond offerings by Goldman Sachs International into a Swiss bank account belonging to a British Virgin Islands entity that was deceptively named to disguise its true purpose.
Among the assets federal prosecutors want are the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills; condominiums, penthouses and mansions in California and New York; and paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. They are also seeking all rights to and interest in the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” held by the film production company Red Granite Pictures. Company co-founder Riza Shahriz Bin Abdul Aziz is the Malaysian prime minister’s stepson.
Federal prosecutors allege that tens of millions of dollars were diverted from 1MDB to fund Red Granite Pictures and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” some of it distributed by Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, who also goes by Jho Low.
Prosecutors noted that actor Leonardo DiCaprio — who is not named in the complaint but can be identified based on the information contained in it — thanked Aziz and Low when he won a Golden Globe for his role in the movie. They also alleged that DiCaprio gambled on Low’s tab at the Venetian casino in Las Vegas in July 2012.
A representative for DiCaprio did not immediately return a message seeking comment. A representative of Red Granite Pictures said she was looking into a reporter’s inquiry. Efforts to locate a phone number for Low or a representative were not immediately successful.