The last time we wrote about the long-running saga of the scandalous collapse and constant corruption at the Malaysian state wealth fund, 1MDB, which also happened to be an unconfirmed slush fund for president Najib, was a month ago when we learned that the NY bank regulator was looking into fundraising by the fund's favorite bank, Goldman Sachs. Then overnight, the story which already seemed like it has every possible angle of crime and corruption covered for a series of Hollywood action-adventure blockbusters, got a new twist when the DOJ announced it would seek to seize some $1 billion in assets from individuals affiliated with the fun as part of one of the largest seizures in US history.
The expected asset seizures would be the U.S. government’s first action tied to the 1MDB investigation. Among the properties the US is looking to confiscate, are Van Gogh paintings, Beverly Hills properties, a private jet, ultra high end real estate in NYC and LA, and the rights to profits from the hit movie The Wolf of Wall Street.
The move by U.S. authorities to seize assets tied to an investment fund run by a foreign government would be a major escalation in Washington’s global efforts to fight corruption and block allegedly illegally obtained funds, facilitated by Goldman Sachs, from moving through the world’s financial system the WSJ adds.
The case represents the most detailed and sweeping allegations to be brought in the multinational probe into a global scheme to siphon more than $3.5bn from the Malaysian government fund. As the FT adds, it is also the first time Malay prime minister, Najib Razak, has been officially tied to the scandal, and while he has not been by name in court documents the description of “Malaysian Official 1” matches his biography and job responsibilities. In what may develop into a major diplomatic row, the DOJ states that that "official" received funds misappropriated from 1MDB, prosecutors say. Najib has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The actions by U.S. authorities also threaten to upend the country’s relationship with Malaysia, a moderate Muslim nation that has long been an important U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, and may force Malaysia to enter China's sphere of influence in exchange for protection from US retaliation. Malaysia has deep ties to the Middle East and has been seen as a bulwark against China, which has increasingly asserted its power across Asia. President Barack Obama cultivated a relationship with Mr. Najib, including playing golf together in Hawaii over the Christmas holidays in 2014, something we reported at the time.
Amid the controversy, the Malaysian leader now was likely to focus on his domestic political survival rather than retaliate against the Obama administration, said James Keith, US ambassador to Malaysia from 2007 to 2010. Malaysia is a key regional partner for the US, backing a proposed trans-Pacific trade deal and hosting a digital centre to counter Islamic State propaganda. “I don’t think this is unexpected from Najib’s perspective,” said Mr Keith. “His approach is: batten down the hatches; we’re going to survive this, no matter what. He’ll do everything he can just to pretend this didn’t happen.”
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Political fallout notwithstanding, the case reveals just how extensive money-laundering by the fund, the Malay prime minister, and a handful of affiliated individuals, often with US bank assistance, has been ever since 1MDB was created in 2009 as a government-owned vehicle to promote economic development through global partnerships and foreign investment.
Ironically, it ended up anything but as funds intended to benefit the Malaysian people were instead diverted to buy real estate, works of art and jewellery, pay casino bills and hire musicians and celebrities for the conspirators’ “lavish lifestyles”, the complaint says. More than $200m was spent on art alone, prosecutors allege.
As part of the complaint, US authorities accuse Malaysian officials and business executives with receiving laundered 1MDB funds through banks in Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and New York. The Malaysian officials “treated this public trust as a personal bank account”, said Loretta Lynch, US attorney-general. The misappropriation occurred over four years beginning shortly after Mr Najib set up the fund, according to the complaint. According to the suit, in March 2013, $681m in proceeds from a 1MDB bond offering were transferred into an account belonging to the official matching Mr Najib’s description. Five months later, $620m of that amount was shifted to a different account to which a 1MDB official was an authorised signatory.
Officials at 1MDB and others began diverting money shortly after the fund was created in September 2009 under the guise of investing in a joint venture with a private Saudi oil extraction company, PetroSaudi International. More than $1bn was transferred to a Swiss bank account held by Good Star Ltd, which was owned by Mr Low, prosecutors allege. Andrew McCabe, deputy director of the FBI, told reporters in Washington: “The Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale.”
There is more in the full complaint, and it revolves around the three main players who, aside from the prime minister, were instrumental in the perpetuation of this grand fraud, including, Riza Aziz, stepson of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak; Jho Low, a Malaysian financier; and Khadem Al Qubaisi, a former Abu Dhabi managing director of a sovereign-wealth fund.
Details about their involvement can be found in the WSJ.
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Much of the above was already known, or implied, however this is the first official confirmation of just how vast the money-laundering scheme was and that it stretched to the very top. What is now also confirmed, is that at the heart of the fundraising operation was none other than Goldman Sachs.
According to the complaint, in 2012, 1MDB officials and others fraudulently diverted $1.4bn in proceeds from two bond offerings arranged by Goldman Sachs, according to the complaint. Representing almost 40 per cent of the total raised, the funds were transferred to a Swiss account controlled by a British Virgin Islands entity called Aabar Investments PJS Limited. Aabar had been named to suggest a relationship with an Abu Dhabi company, Aabar Investments PJS, an investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government. But funds diverted to the Swiss account ultimately ended up in a Singapore bank account.
In 2013, several officials including those from 1MDB diverted nearly $1.3bn from another $3bn Goldman bond offering. The money was supposed to be used to finance a joint venture known as the Abu Dhabi Malaysia Investment Co but was instead funnelled into a Singapore account controlled by Mr Low’s associate, the complaint says.
Where it becomes clear that Goldman had a special arrangement with the complicit issuer and the prime minister, is that Goldman earned $192.5m or nearly 11 per cent of the principal amount on one of the 2012 bond deals, a $1.75bn offering, according to court documents, which also said that the offering circular “contained misleading statements and omitted materials facts”. Considering that a typical fee for an emerging market sovereign or quasi-sovereign bond offering between $1bn-$5bn would be between 0.1 per cent and 0.3 per cent, according to Dealogic, this is nothing short of kickback to Goldman, and raises questions about why Goldman wilfully accepted such an overblown fee for a deal which any of its competitor banks would have done for a fraction of the cost.
This being Goldman, of course, the bank was not accused of any wrongdoing in today's action. It may be in the future as per the DOJ's parallel prove whether Goldman violated the Bank Secrecy Act in its handling of the proceeds of the securities offerings, but somehow the FBI was unable to link the bank to any crime conducted by the same people who were paying it exorbitant fees to keep the money flowing.
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So once Goldman's fundraising skills allowed corrupt Malaysian politicians and selected shady middlemen to have access to billion which they would then embezzle, what did they spend the money on? Perhaps a better question is what did they not spend on: among the purchases were Van Gogh paintings, a private jet, the rights to profits from the hit movie The Wolf of Wall Street, and real estate. Lots and lots of ultra high end real estate.
Here are some of the details from WSJ:
The properties allegedly bought with funds misappropriated from a Malaysian investment fund would make for a stunning house tour of high-end real estate in New York and Los Angeles. Besides flashy real estate, the U.S. government alleges that money from the fund, known as 1Malaysia Development Bhd. or 1MDB, was used to buy a $35 million private jet and a stake in EMI Music Publishing.
The assets that the government is trying to seize were purchased by three men who had close ties to 1MDB: Jho Low, a Malaysian deal maker; Riza Aziz, the stepson of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, and Khadem Al Qubaisi, a former Abu Dhabi managing director of a sovereign-wealth fund, and occasionally the men sold or gave assets to one another.
The properties range from a Beverly Hills mansion with a 120-foot-long pool to a string of Manhattan condos, including a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom duplex overlooking Central Park that cost $35 million.
The complaints paint a picture of lavish spending on casinos and private jets and a taste for high-end real estate—an asset that has been an increasingly popular place for the world’s wealthy to stash their cash outside the banking system and inside stable countries. Mr. Low declined to comment. A representative for Mr. Al Qubaisi didn’t reply to requests for comment. Red Granite Pictures, a company owned by Mr. Aziz, said it and Mr. Aziz “did nothing wrong.”
Mr. Aziz’s New York duplex is by far the most expensive property in the Park Laurel building, a prominent luxury address near Lincoln Center and overlooking Central Park. Mr. Aziz has stayed in the apartment when he visits New York, according to a doorman there.
A home bought by Mr. Low is located in the so-called Bird Streets in Los Angeles’s Hollywood Hills—a quiet enclave of narrow, twisting roads named after different types of birds. The property on Oriole Drive is a 6-bedroom, 5-bathroom home with a swimming pool, spa and wine cellar, which Mr. Low bought in 2012 for $39 million, according to records. A tall, white wall surrounds the house.
The Los Angeles home owned by Mr. Aziz on North Hillcrest Road— a winding street just off Sunset Boulevard—was purchased in 2010 for $17.5 million. Security guards on the site Wednesday said that they had no idea who owned the property and that no federal agents had visited.
The Viceroy L’Ermitage Beverly Hills, the hotel Mr. Low purchased in 2009 through his family’s trust, sits discreetly on a tree-lined, residential street and features a rooftop pool and 116 newly renovated suites. Hotel staff said they hadn’t noticed any unusual activity Wednesday morning.
Mr. Low owns a majority stake in the Park Lane Hotel, a trophy property overlooking New York’s Central Park. He put up about $240 million of the $400 million of equity provided by the investors who bought the 46-story property in 2013 in a deal that valued it at about $850 million.
The investor group, led by New York developer Steve Witkoff, planned at the time to continue running the Park Lane as a hotel while studying the possibility of redeveloping the hotel into condominiums or a mixed-use property. But when news broke that Mr. Low was under investigation, those plans were stymied. Such a plan would require approval from the New York state attorney general’s office, an unlikely event when the property’s majority owner was being investigated.
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And that kind of magnificent organized crime, dear New Yorkers, is why real estate in Manhattan has never been more expensive.