Guest article by Hollie S. McKay, journalist and author of the book, “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.” McKay is a foreign policy expert and war crimes investigator. She was an investigative and international affairs/war journalist for Fox News Digital for over fourteen years where she focused on warfare, terrorism, and crimes against humanity, according to her bio.
Those moments when the truth is stranger than the fiction.
Known as the 1MDB scandal, or formally the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, it marked the biggest fraud scandal of all time. Its legal ramifications remain ongoing, and its paper trail traces back to trials of Tinseltown.
In 2016, the U.S Department of Justice alleged that $4.5 billion was siphoned from the fund, all at the masterminding behest of Malaysian financier Low Take Jho, commonly referred to as Jho Low, who also had links to financing the 2013 Martin Scorsese hit “The Wolf of Wall Street.” At its core, Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Najib Razak was in the throes of the receiving end.
While the nation’s leader was able to suppress the politically unruly matter, after a surprise election loss in 2018, the newly elected prime minister Mahathir Mohamed wedged it open again and the fallout keeps on deepening.
In Kuala Lumpur in February, the ongoing trial brought to light a string of intimidation and power plays, with the former CEO of the fund, Mohd Hazem Abdul Rahman, claiming that he was aware of the criminal elements of the scam, but feared retaliation from Razak should he have failed to toe the line. Najib is currently facing four counts related to an abuse of power, and 21 counts of money laundering.
Separately, the U.S DOJ is determined to hold all players in the plot accountable.
But the tentacles run far and wide – all the way through the highest echelons of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabian royals. (And no surprises in that Abu Dhabi is purporting to cut a quiet deal with the Malaysian royals, presumably to avoid big names also implicated in the scandal from being publicly exposed.)
Think confusion. That’s the MO.
“Separate channels of communication make it harder for law enforcement to locate any wrongdoing, so I can imagine this is a strategy implemented to cover up any sensitive information around the 1MBD case,” explained Ken Mahoney, founder of the Wall Street firm Mahoney Asset Management. “To add to this, with multiple representatives working on the case mismatched information and ‘lost files’ can result in a lack of hard concrete evidence which works in favor of those involved in the scandal.”
Those tentacles then stretch through to black eyes on Wall Street and the Hollywood podium. In January, Goldman Sachs cut chief executive David Solomon’s annual compensation by 36 percent – around $10 million – for his role in working with the flawed fund. Goldman official Tim Leissner, the husband of designer Kimora Lee Simmons, is also embroiled, with the Malaysian defense requesting documents and testimony through a Manhattan court. Leissner pled guilty and conceded to forfeit $43.7 million in 2018, and last year Goldman set aside $1.09 billion during the final quarter of 2020 to settle allegations.
But back to Hollywood.
In February 2021, U.S. prosecutors allowed the sale of the luxurious Beverly Hills, California. mansion – going for a cool $27.4 million – previously owned by Riza Aziz, the money man behind “The Wolf of Wall Street.” According to documents, Low – who has denied accusations of wrongdoing – purchased the lavish 13,000-square foot abode in 2010 and transferred ownership to his comrade Aziz two years later.
The story goes that producers of the Oscar-nominated film, connected to a then little-known company Red Granite Productions, received a $9 million advance from Low, court documents have indicated. The company was founded by Aziz, who just so happens to be the stepson of Razak. Red Granite has paid some $60 million to settle claims that its financing stemmed from monies pilfered from the sovereign wealth fund.
The A-list also got wrapped up in the mayhem by association. The Oscar-winning star Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly had gifts lavished upon him by Low, ranging from a Picasso painting and Basquiat collage to Marlon Brando’s Oscar – all of which have since been surrendered to authorities. Low also became known for throwing high-profile parties from coast-to-coast, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan. At one point, he is said to have dated supermodel Miranda Kerr – showering her with jewelry that she, too, has had to return to the government.
According to old reports by the Wall Street Journal, some $155 million was funneled from 1MDB to Red Granite through a complex web peppered by offshore shell companies. The film grossed more than $400 million, and to-date there is no evidence to prove that the swell of profits was issued back to 1MDB or Malaysia.
Low and Aziz last year reached settlements with the DOJ, and have maintained their innocence. Low, however, remains at large when it comes to facing trial in Malaysia and is assumed to be living under the protection of Chinese authorities.
Meanwhile, legal experts anticipate that the scandal is likely to grind on for years, as investigators seek to recover the billions and high-profile persons endeavor to cut side deals to keep their names untarnished. The real losers? The Malaysian people, who had their personal pockets plundered with little recourse. Goldman banker, Roger Ng, is still in talks on a potential plea with the DOJ while waiting to take the stand in Malaysia.
“Abu Dhabi and IPIC are still fighting to recover losses and are not willing to settle with Malaysia quite yet,” Mahoney explained. “Malaysia wants significant ‘financial compensation’ to settle the case but with IPIC doing everything they can to stall proceedings law enforcement in the UK have a tough job on their hands.”
The other moral to the story?
Hollywood is far from the barometer of moral fortitude. Take it all with a grain of salt. And then some.