Najib Razak and Jho Low – Who will betray the other first?
Malaysia had never been more famous or infamous in the world for the past week since the publication of two books on the international 1MDB corruption and money-laundering scandal – all for the wrong reasons.
I squirmed with embarrassment when I found Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s “The Billion Dollar Whale” prominently displayed in Australian bookshops, whether the airports or in the Australian cities I visited.
I wondered what would have been the reaction of the two 1MDB protagonists, former Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and the 1MDB “wonder boy”, Penang billionaire Jho Low.
Would Najib preen with pride that he is competing for shopping space and prominence with US President Trump, as the book “Fear” chronicling Trump’s disastrous tenure at the White House by Pulitzer Prize Winner Bob Woodward has hit the bookstands at the same time?
Would Jho Low feel that he had achieved the pinnacle of global fame to be the subject of world’s best-selling books on how a young man in the twenties can successfully raid the international finance system for ten of billions of ringgit, although it is the 30 million Malaysians and their future generations who will have to pay the price for such creative international highway robbery?
But one intriguing question came to me when I read the latest report from Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewscastle Brown that Jho Low is seeking a settlement with the US Department of Justice on the largest kleptocratic litigation in US history to forfeit some US$1.7 billion 1MDB-linked assets in the United States.
The intriguing question is whether out of the two, Najib and Jho Low, who will be the first to betray the other in the 1MDB “worst case of kleptocracy”!
Jho Low’s attempt to seek settlement of the US DOJ kleptocratic suit will not be the first case of its kind.
After all, Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, had already done the same thing.
In March this year, Red Granite Pictures – the film production company linked to the 1MDB scandal – reached a settlement with the US government to the tune of US$60 million (RM234 million).
The payment was a substitute for Red Granite’s assets that the US Department of Justice was seeking to seize, as part of its civil forfeiture suits involving 1MDB.
Under the settlement, Red Granite CEO Riza Aziz – the stepson of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak – will only draw a limited salary to cover his health insurance until the full settlement amount was paid.
Riza – the 'majority shareholder' – shall continue to draw no salary, other than the minimum required in order to ensure continuity of health insurance coverage under Red Granite’s plan, until the forfeiture amount had been paid in full.
The DOJ had claimed that US$64 million in allegedly misappropriated 1MDB funds had been wired to Red Granite, and used to finance the production of films, including Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film "The Wolf of Wall Street".
According to court documents, Red Granite did not admit to any liability or wrongdoing under the settlement.
The payments would be made in three tranches, which will see profits earned from the 2015 movie “Daddy's Home” transferred from distributors Paramount Pictures to a US government controlled account, and disbursed back to Red Granite once the full settlement amount is paid.
In a statement, Red Granite said it was "glad to finally put this matter behind us and look forward to refocusing all of our attention back on our film business".
Red Granite has maintained that it did not knowingly use stolen funds to finance its films.
Riza was accused of using the funds to purchase luxury properties from businessperson Jho Low, as well as movie posters.
The DOJ alleged that the prime minister's stepson had also claimed that US$94 million out of the 1MDB funds he received were "a gift"
In the latest report in Sarawak Report, it was said that Low's new legal team, headed by "well-connected" former federal prosecutor and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, had obtained a high-level meeting with DOJ officials.
It said the attempt to seek for a settlement was an acknowledgment by Low that he was unlikely to persuade the US courts to return around US$1.2 billion in assets which authorities have seized on grounds that they were allegedly acquired using funds stolen from 1MDB.
"However, by cutting a deal, the billionaire, who is facing criminal charges in Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and elsewhere, including the United States, will be hoping to retain some of the value of the assets," said the report.
The report said this came amid concerns that the legal team itself was being paid by Low using funds allegedly stolen from 1MDB.
It said that the US' willingness to discuss a settlement was so that it could focus on other aspects of the 1MDB scandal, such as financial giant Goldman Sachs role in arranging multi-billion ringgit bonds for 1MDB which were purportedly then misappropriated.
"The bank has earned the anger and ill-feeling of countless Americans as a result of its pivotal role in causing the crash of 2008 and yet none of its bankers have been brought to book so far.
"The apparent negligence and huge sums earned through 1MDB have provided US investigators their most compelling evidence yet against what many believe to be rogue behaviour by the major bank," it said.
However, the report said a settlement will not sit well with Malaysian authorities.
It added that the US had recently also refused to grant Malaysia a guarantee that all seized assets suspected of having been acquired from stolen 1MDB funds would be returned in entirety.
“It doesn’t mean that the US will not return the money to Malaysia, but it does mean the US is insisting on keeping control over the process and that might include settling the case for less than the entire amount," the source was quoted as saying.
Clarification from the authorities on this 1MDB scandal development will be most proper.