WASHINGTON - The US Justice Department has moved to seize more than US$1 billion in assets including luxury real estate and a jet allegedly bought with money pilfered from the 1MDB state investment fund.
In a development which could rock the Malaysian political scene, the US alleged that billions of dollars were siphoned off by Malaysian premier Najib Razak’s stepson, a family friend and other officials.
Pilfered funds were notably spent on fine art and high-end US real estate, and Najib’s stepson also invested more than $100 million to finance the 2013 Hollywood financial crime caper "The Wolf of Wall Street," according to the Justice Department.
"The Department of Justice will not allow the American financial system to be used as a conduit for corruption," US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in prepared remarks to announce the new legal action.
Lynch said the funds taken from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a sovereign wealth fund that was controlled by Najib in his concurrent role as finance minister, had been meant to help develop the Malaysian economy.
"Instead, they were stolen, laundered through American financial institutions and used to enrich a few officials and their associates," she said.
Prosecutors are seeking to seize future film royalties owed to a firm owned by Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson, including those from the hit Martin Scorsese film that starred Leonardo DiCaprio.
They also identified nearly 20 other assets, including lavish real estate from Beverly Hills to a penthouse in New York’s Time Warner Center to London’s high-end Belgravia neighborhood.
Also included were artworks by the painters Monet and Van Gogh as well as a Bombardier Global 5000 business jet.
The complaint said the high-flying Malaysian businessman known as Jho Low, a friend of Najib’s family who helped create 1MDB, had allegedly laundered hundreds of millions of illicit funds into the United States, which funded the real estate purchases and a lavish personal lifestyle.
In one eight-month span between 2009 and 2010, Low allegedly transferred $85 million to casinos in Las Vegas.
The Justice Department filings refer to "Malaysian Official 1," described as a "high-ranking official" in the Malaysian government with control over 1MDB.
According to the Justice Department filing, "Malaysian Official 1" was the "ultimate beneficiary" of bank local Malaysia bank account which held tens of millions of allegedly misappropriated funds.
The move to seize the funds, which is subject to what could be lengthy legal proceedings, emerges from a 2010 Justice Department anti-kleptocracy initiative intended to confiscate the ill-gotten gains of world leaders which pass through the United States.
The scandal around the embezzlement of billions of dollars from 1MDB, much of them borrowed, has battered Najib’s government.
Switzerland and Singapore have frozen millions of dollars worth of assets on suspicion of 1MDB-related embezzlement and money-laundering, but so far no major figures have been brought to justice.
Red Granite Pictures, which produced "The Wolf of Wall Street," was named in the federal complaint. It said it was unaware of any inappropriate funding.
"To Red Granite’s knowledge, none of the funding it received four years ago was in any way illegitimate and there is nothing in today’s civil lawsuit claiming that Red Granite knew otherwise.
"Red Granite continues to cooperate fully with all inquiries and is confident that when the facts come out, it will be clear that Riza Aziz and Red Granite did nothing wrong. - AFP