NEW YORK/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday struck a deal to recoup $1 billion in funds allegedly looted from a Malaysian state investment fund by fugitive financier Jho Low, in a record capture for a U.S. anti-corruption probe.
FILE PHOTO: A general view of The Exchange 106 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 23, 2019. REUTERS/ Lim Huey Teng
U.S. authorities say about $4.5 billion were siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), founded in 2009 by then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.
Since 2016, the Justice Department, in the biggest ever case in its anti-kleptocracy programme, has filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize about $1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds.
Low, who called the agreement “historic” in a statement issued on his behalf, faces charges in both the United States and Malaysia over his central role in the scandal.
Low agreed to give up a private jet, high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London and other assets totaling $700 million, the Justice Department said in a statement and court document filed on Wednesday.
That’s on top of a $126-million yacht and $140 million in other assets previously forfeited. If approved, the settlement will mark the largest civil forfeiture ever concluded by the Justice Department, it said.
“The message in this case is simple: the United States is not a safe haven for pilfered funds,” said U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna of the Central District of California. The deal does not include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing and is not tied to the criminal action against Low. “I am very pleased to confirm that a landmark comprehensive, global settlement has been reached with the United States government,” Low said in the statement.
The settlement also includes assets in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, as well as funds from the sale of Low’s stake in EMI music publishing group.
The parties have also agreed to cooperate on settling the suits on other assets, including diamond jewellery and paintings by Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, the court filing said.
The proposed settlement was filed in a California court on Wednesday and needs to be approved by a judge.
1MDB is the subject of corruption and money laundering investigations in at least six countries.
Malaysian police last year filed charges and issued arrest warrants for Low and several of his associates, whose whereabouts are unknown.
Low has consistently denied wrongdoing.
Asked about any negotiations with other parties, a spokesman for his lawyers reiterated their previous stand on the issue:
“If and when Mr. Low is confident that he will be safe and treated fairly, he looks forward to addressing any remaining issues”.
Low has, however, said he does not expect to get a fair deal in Malaysia as long as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is in power.
Malaysian government officials did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on the settlement.
Goldman said earlier this month it was cooperating with the Justice Department and other government and regulatory investigations.
Malaysia has filed criminal charges against Goldman and 17 current and former directors of the bank’s units for allegedly misleading investors over bond sales totalling $6.5 billion that the bank helped raise for 1MDB.
Prosecutors on Thursday asked for the case against three Goldman units to be moved to a higher court. The request will be heard on Dec. 16.
Allegations that about $1 billion in 1MDB funds flowed into Najib’s personal accounts fuelled anger among Malaysians, who voted his long-ruling coalition out of power in an election last May.
Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were barred from leaving Malaysia soon after the election loss, and their lifestyle came under scrutiny, with the discovery of nearly $300 million worth of goods and cash at properties linked to him.
Najib now faces years in prison after being hit with 42 criminal charges related to losses at 1MDB and other government entities. He has consistently denied wrongdoing.
A Malaysian court will rule on Nov. 11 on whether to acquit Najib or call for him to enter his defence, in the first of several criminal trials against him.
Reporting by Chris Prentice in New York and Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur; Additional reporting by Bharath Manjesh and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber, Tom Brown, Shri Navaratnam and Lincoln Feast