The US Department of Justice is seeking to recover $540m in assets that it says were stolen from Malaysia’s troubled sovereign wealth fund, prompting objections from Malaysian officials who said on Friday there was no evidence of such crimes.
The move by the United States, announced on Thursday, is part of an effort to seize luxury property, art, and other ill-gotten assets linked to fraud at the government-controlled fund, which is intended to promote economic development projects in the Asian nation.
It was the latest development in a complex money laundering scheme the Justice Department says was intended to enrich top-level officials of the fund, including some who are close to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Najib has denied wrongdoing. The prime minister’s press secretary, Tengku Sariffuddin, attacked the latest move and said: “The judicial process is not served by headline seeking.”
The Justice Department says more than $4.5bn has been stolen from the fund, known informally as 1MDB, which was created in 2009.
“This money financed the lavish lifestyles of the alleged coconspirators at the expense and detriment of the Malaysian people,” acting US Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in a statement.
The assets also include a rare 22-carat pink diamond necklace, allegedly bought for Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, at an estimated $27.3m.
The filings did not identify Najib or his wife by name, but it stated that the jewellery purchases were for the wife of “Malaysian Official 1”.
Malaysian and US government sources have previously confirmed that “Malaysian Official 1” refers to Najib.
The accusations have rocked the Malaysian governing class and come at an especially awkward time for the Malaysian leader, as he had been expected to call a snap election later this year.
Last summer, prosecutors moved to recover more than $1bn allegedly embezzled by businessmen with political connections in Malaysia to pay for properties in New York and California, a $35m jet, art by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet and to help finance the movies, “Dumb and Dumber To” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” – which ironically focused on financial crimes.
In the latest court papers filed in Los Angeles, federal prosecutors alleged that in 2014 Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho stole $850m from funds borrowed from a syndicate of banks, ostensibly to repay options on bonds issued in an earlier stage of the scheme.
Those assets include a $261m yacht Low purchased, as well as paintings by Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat; and the royalties of “Dumb and Dummer To” and “Daddy’s Home”.
Those films were also produced by Red Granite, a Los Angeles company co-founded by Riza Aziz, son-in-law of Najib.
Bloomberg News reported that some of the assets highlighted in the court papers were given away by the conspirators as gifts, including a collage by Basquiat and a painting by Picasso, both presented to “Wolf of Wall Street” star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Bloomberg quoted a spokesman for the actor as saying that he had already “initiated return” of the items, which he had accepted for a charity auction for his foundation.
The lawsuits also describe how Low spent about $9m in 2014 buying jewellery for Australian model Miranda Kerr.
Low bought a necklace containing an 11.72-carat heart-shaped diamond for $1.29m, with Kerr’s initials “MK” inscribed on the back.
The necklace was given to Kerr as a Valentine’s Day gift, according to the lawsuit.
Later that same year, Low bought an 8.88-carat pink heart diamond pendant worth $4.8m, also as a gift for Kerr.
The case is the largest single action the Justice Department has taken under its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, launched in 2010, which seeks to recover foreign bribery proceeds and embezzled funds.