WASHINGTON – The US Justice Department is seeking to recover US$540 million in assets, including penthouse apartments, paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and a yacht known as the Equanimity, that it says were stolen from Malaysia’s troubled sovereign wealth fund.
The move has brought objections from Malaysian officials who said on Friday there was no evidence of such crimes.
It is part of an effort to seize allegedly ill-gotten assets linked to fraud at the government-controlled fund, which is intended to promote economic development projects.
The Justice Department alleges a complex money laundering scheme was intended to enrich top-level officials of the fund, including some who are close to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Last summer, prosecutors moved to recover more than $1 billion diverted from the fund to pay for properties in New York and California, a $35 million jet, art by Van Gogh and Claude Monet and to help finance the movies, “Dumb and Dumber To” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was produced by Red Granite Pictures, a studio co-founded by Mr Najib’s stepson.
The Justice Department alleges that more than $4.5 billion has been stolen from the fund, known informally as 1MDB. The case is the largest single action the Justice Department has taken under its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, which seeks to recover foreign bribery proceeds and embezzled funds.
“These cases involve billions of dollars that should have been used to help the people of Malaysia, but instead was used by a small number of individuals to fuel their astonishing greed,” said Sandra Brown, acting US attorney for the Central District of California.
She described a “web of lies and bogus transactions” and said “we simply will not allow the United States to be a place where corrupt individuals can expect to hide assets and lavishly spend money that should be used for the benefit of citizens of other nations.”
Malaysian attorney general Mohamed Apandi Ali on Friday rejected the Justice Department’s claims, saying there was no evidence from investigators anywhere that money was misappropriated from 1MDB. Several other countries, including Singapore and Switzerland, are conducting their own probes.
Mr Apandi also expressed “strong concerns” over suggestions Mr Najib, who has not been named in civil cases related to 1MDB, engaged in criminal acts. The attorney general said Malaysia will uphold the “rule of law” and take action if there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
Nr Najib’s press secretary Tengku Sariffuddin, in a separate statement, voiced concern that the US Justice Department did not seek cooperation from the Malaysian government or 1MDB.
“We are also concerned by the unnecessary and gratuitous naming of certain matters and individuals that are only relevant to domestic political manipulation and interference. This suggests a motivation that goes beyond the objective of seizing assets,” he said, without elaborating,
Some of the items at issue were given to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation for a charity auction. The foundation says it is “dedicated to the long-term health and wellbeing of all Earth’s inhabitants”.
A DiCaprio spokesperson said that those items and an Academy Award won by Marlon Brando which was given to DiCaprio as a set gift by Red Granite to thank him for his work on “The Wolf of Wall Street” were returned voluntarily.
“Prior to the government’s filing of the civil pleading today, Mr DiCaprio initiated return of these items, which were received and accepted by him for the purpose of being included in an annual charity auction to benefit his eponymous foundation,” the Wednesday statement said.
Red Granite released a statement saying it was trying to resolve the case and cooperating fully with the Justice Department.
By EILEEN NG