US charges Malaysian financier in money laundering scheme

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Thursday charged a fugitive Malaysian financier in a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions of dollars from a Malaysian investment fund created to promote economic development projects in that country.

The three-count indictment charges Low Taek Jho, who is also known as Jho Low, with misappropriating money from the state-owned fund and using it for bribes and kickbacks to foreign officials, to pay for luxury real estate, art and jewelry in the United States and to fund Hollywood movies, including "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Also charged was a former Goldman Sachs banker, Tim Leissner, who pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy and to conspiring to violating foreign bribery laws. Another former bank official, Ng Chong Hwa, 51, also known as Roger Ng, was arrested earlier Thursday in Malaysia and accused of circumventing internal accounting controls, prosecutors said.

Lawyers for Low and Leissner did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Goldman Sachs, which the indictment says raised about $6.5 billion through bond offerings for the fund, also did not immediately comment. Police in Malaysia said in July that Low had fled Macau to an unknown destination. He remains at large. It was not immediately clear if Ng had a lawyer.

The charges are the first arising from a global scandal over the epic corruption scandal at the state investment fund known as 1MDB. The Justice Department in 2016 moved to recover more than $1 billion that it said had been stolen, filing a civil complaint that sought the forfeiture of property including a Manhattan penthouse, a Beverly Hills mansion, a luxury jet and paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet.

The fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, was set up in 2009 by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak to promote economic development. Najib chaired its advisory board and as finance minister held veto power over its activities. A friend of Najib's stepson Riza Aziz, Low had no official role at 1MDB but had considerable influence over its dealings and was often in contact with Najib, according to the Justice Department, U.S. authorities have said.

The scandal has already had major political ramifications in Malaysia, where Najib in 2015 sacked his attorney general and a deputy prime minister for demanding answers about 1MDB. A parliamentary inquiry found many irregularities but had no mandate to prosecute.

Former leader Mahathir Mohammad, outraged over the scandal, came out of retirement and the opposition united behind him in the national elections, leading to Najib's ouster in May.

In June, anti-corruption investigators questioned Najib's wife about alleged theft and money-laundering.

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