Seized luxury yacht Equanimity, belonging to fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, is brought to Boustead Cruise Terminal in Port Klang, Malaysia on August 7 2018. Picture: REUTERS/LAI SENG SIN
Seized luxury yacht Equanimity, belonging to fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, is brought to Boustead Cruise Terminal in Port Klang, Malaysia on August 7 2018. Picture: REUTERS/LAI SENG SIN

New York/Kuala Lumpur  — The US justice department has struck a deal to recoup $1bn in funds allegedly looted from a Malaysian state investment fund by fugitive financier Jho Low, in a record capture for a US anti-corruption probe.

US authorities say about $4.5bn were siphoned from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), founded in 2009 by then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.

Since 2016, the justice department, in the biggest-ever case in its anti-kleptocracy programme, has filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize about $1.7bn in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds.

Low, who called Wednesday’s agreement “historic” in a statement issued on his behalf, faces charges in both the US and Malaysia over his central role in the scandal. Low agreed to give up a private jet, high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London, and other assets totaling $700m, the justice department said in a statement and court document filed on Wednesday.

This is on top of a $126m yacht and $140m in other assets previously forfeited. If approved, the settlement will mark the largest civil forfeiture ever concluded by the justice department, it said.

“The message in this case is simple: the US is not a safe haven for pilfered funds,” said US attorney Nicola T Hanna of the central district of California.

The deal does not include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing and is not tied to the criminal action against Low. “I am very pleased to confirm that a landmark, comprehensive, global settlement has been reached with the US government,” Low said in the statement.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that Malaysia will file a claim on the forfeited assets. “The assets were bought with Malaysian money, we have proof that it was Malaysian money; we will now make a claim with the American government,” he told reporters on Thursday.

In May, the US begun returning $200m to Malaysia, following the sale of 1MDB-linked assets. The fund is the subject of corruption and money-laundering investigations in at least six countries.

In 2018, Malaysian police filed charges and issued arrest warrants for Low and several of his associates, whose whereabouts are unknown. Low has consistently denied wrongdoing.

Asked about any negotiations with other parties, a spokesperson for his lawyers reiterated their previous stand on the issue: “If and when Mr Low is confident that he will be safe and treated fairly, he looks forward to addressing any remaining issues”.

Low has, however, said he does not expect to get a fair deal in Malaysia as long as Mahathir is in power.

‘Multi-year conspiracy’

Officials in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank have all been caught up in probes into the multi-year conspiracy.

Goldman said earlier this month it is co-operating with the US justice department and other government and regulatory investigations. Malaysia has filed criminal charges against Goldman and 17 current and former directors of the bank’s units for allegedly misleading investors over bond sales totaling $6.5bn that the bank helped raise for 1MDB.

On Thursday, a Malaysian court fixed December 16 to hear a request by prosecutors to move a criminal case against three Goldman units to a higher court.

Allegations that about $1bn in 1MDB funds flowed into Najib’s personal accounts fueled anger among Malaysians, who voted his long-ruling coalition out of power in an election last May. Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were barred from leaving Malaysia soon after the election loss, and their lifestyle came under scrutiny, with the discovery of nearly $300m worth of goods and cash at properties linked to him.

Najib now faces years in prison after being hit with 42 criminal charges related to losses at 1MDB and other government entities. He has consistently denied wrongdoing.

A Malaysian court will rule on November 11 on whether to acquit Najib or call for him to enter his defence, in the first of several criminal trials against him.

Reuters