Goldman Resists DoJ Pressure To Plead Guilty In 1MDB Case

Late last year, reports about Goldman Sachs reaching a settlement with the DoJ that - importantly - would allow the bank to avoid a criminal guilty plea left investors with the impression that, like the bank's previous transgressions, Goldman's slate would be wiped clean after a modest payout.

But as more third-party organizations raised questions about AG Barr's connection to Kirkland Ellis, the law firm representing Goldman in the case (Barr received an ethics waiver, along with prosecutor Jeremy Rosen, also a K&E alum), and questioned whether the Trump Administration was trying to hide an attempt to forgive a serious example of corporate malfeasance involving a firm with connections reaching to the highest levels of the administration (several senior officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are Goldman alumni).

After months of radio silence on the case, the head of all criminal prosecutions at DoJ suddenly announced earlier this week that he planned to step down, despite several major publicity wins, including the prosecution of "El Chapo". Brian Benczkowski, the anove-mentioned department head, oversaw many cases, including 1MDB. He said he was leaving to spend more time with the family. Barely one day later, the New York Times published a report claiming Goldman is backing away from a settlement with the DoJ because of demands that any settlement include the criminal guilty plea that Goldman is desperate to avoid (it's relatively brief rap sheet is a point of pride for the company, even if its brand reputation doesn't necessarily reflect this).

Lawyers for the bank have asked Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to review demands by some federal prosecutors that Goldman pay more than $2 billion in fines and plead guilty to a felony charge, according to three people briefed on the matter.

The bank has sought to pay a lower fine and avoid a guilty plea, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are continuing.

The request, which was made several weeks ago, is not unusual for a high-profile corporate investigation and often comes in the final stage of settlement talks. But it has been a point of pride for Goldman that it has never had to admit guilt in a federal investigation, and the scandal has already been a black eye for the bank.

Authorities in the United States and Malaysia say more than $2.7 billion was diverted from the fund, known as 1MDB, in a scheme that involved the flamboyant financier Jho Low, the country’s former prime minister, and other powerful people. The fund was meant to finance projects for the benefit of the people of Malaysia, but some of the cash went to buy luxury apartments, yachts, paintings and even finance the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

With the sentencing for the government's key cooperating witness - the Goldman banker who put the deal together - coming up, and a trial for a member of that banker's team expected next year, a decision by Goldman to pull back could create even more drama and reputational damage surrounding the bank's work on 1MDB.

For those who aren't familiar, 1MDB was a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund seeded with billions of dollars in borrowed money via bond deals underwritten by Goldman. However, the fund was pillaged by a banker named Jho Low, and other friends of Malaysian PM Najib Razak, who shared in the plunder. Razak just faced a major corruption trial, and Low is an international fugitive believed to be hiding out in China. There's evidence that senior officers including ex-CEO Lloyd Blankfein and even David Solomon, the current CEO, may have been involved in dismissing numerous red flags about the deal raised by the bank's newly emboldened compliance department (keep in mind, this deal was put together in the immediate aftermath of the GFC).

Then again, if Goldman gambles by pulling back, and Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, the bank might be facing a DoJ with an even more aggressive mandate to pursue corporate crime.