US prosecutors are seeking to seize New York City penthouses, Hollywood and Beverly Hills mansions, a private jet and even some future proceeds from the award-winning movie The Wolf of Wall Street in a forfeiture case that alleges a breathtaking level of fraud surrounding a Malaysian-government investment fund.
In total, the Justice Department is seeking to recover more than US$1 billion ($1.4 billion) in assets that prosecutors allege are ill-gotten gains from an effort by Malaysian officials and their associates to misappropriate money from the government-owned fund.
That fund, known as 1MDB, was supposed to pursue projects to benefit residents of Malaysia but was used instead to sate the expensive tastes of those with power over it, officials said.
"Unfortunately, sadly, tragically, a number of corrupt 1MDB officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account," US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
The complaint alleges that more than US$730 million of what seemed to be 1MDB money was ultimately routed to the personal bank account of "Malaysian Official 1," a thinly veiled reference to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. It is unclear what the money was spent on, and the Malaysian Attorney-General has asserted that US$620m was returned.
The civil forfeiture complaint undeniably puts the Malaysian Government, viewed by the Obama Administration as a key Asian ally, in an uncomfortable position. The Administration has worked to foster closer ties with Malaysia as part of a strategy to cultivate partners in Asia who can act as a counterweight to China. In 2014, Najib was invited by President Barack Obama to go golfing in Hawaii. Asked about the matter, Lynch said Malaysia "does continue to be an ally of ours," particularly on counter-terrorism matters.
Since the scandal broke in Malaysia, Najib has called the issue an "unnecessary distraction" and asserted that no crime was committed. The country's Attorney-General said his own investigation supported that assertion.
Federal prosecutors did not charge anyone criminally in connection with the alleged misdeeds. In a series of extensive complaints filed in US District Court for the Central District of California, they merely sought to take control of assets that were a part of corrupt schemes.
Lynch said the US$1 billion in assets the Justice Department is seeking represent just a portion of the more than US$3 billion they believe was stolen from 1MDB. The case, she said, is the largest single action in the history of the Justice Department's kleptocracy initiative, which seeks to stem international corruption by reclaiming the money it produces.
Among the assets federal prosecutors want are the L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills, condominiums, penthouses and mansions in California and New York, and all the rights and interest that the film production company Red Granite Pictures own to the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. Company co-founder Riza Shahriz Bin Abdul Aziz is the Malaysian Prime Minister's stepson.
Federal prosecutors allege tens of millions of dollars were diverted from 1MDB to fund Red Granite Pictures and The Wolf of Wall Street, some distributed by Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, who also goes by Jho Low.
Prosecutors noted that actor Leonardo DiCaprio - who is not named in the complaint but can be identified based on the information contained in it - thanked Aziz and Low when he won a Golden Globe for his role in the movie. They also alleged that DiCaprio gambled on Low's tab at the Venetian casino in July 2012.
A representative for DiCaprio did not immediately return a message seeking comment. A representative of Red Granite Pictures said she was looking into a reporter's inquiry. Efforts to locate a phone number for Low or a representative were not immediately successful.
Federal prosecutors alleged that the fraud involving 1MDB spanned from 2009 to at least 2013 and that those involved used complicated financial transactions involving banks in Switzerland and Singapore to hide their wrongdoing. The money often travelled complicated paths, and Lynch said prosecutors moved to seize only that which went through the US financial system and thus gave federal prosecutors jurisdiction to act on it.