US charges Malaysian financier, Goldman Sachs bankers over 1MDB

US Justice Department announces first indictments in billion-dollar state fund scandal that has roiled Malaysia.

    The 1MDB scandal refers to a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions of dollars from a Malaysian investment fund [Sadiq Asyraf/AP Photo]
    The 1MDB scandal refers to a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions of dollars from a Malaysian investment fund [Sadiq Asyraf/AP Photo]

    Prosecutors in the United States have unveiled criminal charges against a Malaysian financier and two former Goldman Sachs bankers in connection with the billion-dollar 1MDB sovereign wealth fund scandal.

    The three-count indictment on Thursday charges Low Taek Jho of misappropriating money from the state-owned fund and using it to bribe foreign officials and buy luxury real estate, art and jewellery in the US and fund Hollywood films, including "The Wolf of Wall Street."

    Low, also known as Jho Low, remains at large.

    Also charged by the US Department of Justice was former senior Goldman Sachs banker, Tim Leissner, who pleaded guilty to money laundering, and conspiring to violate foreign bribery laws. Another bank official, Ng Chong Hwa, 51, also known as Roger Ng, was arrested earlier on Thursday in Malaysia, prosecutors said.

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    Goldman has not yet responded to the indictments.

    The investment bank, which generated about $600m in fees for its work with 1MDB, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said it was cooperating with authorities.

    A spokesman for Low, who is wanted by the authorities in Malaysia, issued a statement through lawyers stressing that he had held "no formal position at 1MDB" and maintaining his innocence. 

    "The bond offerings detailed in the indictment were undertaken openly and lawfully between experienced, well-regulated financial institutions and government entities," the statement said.

    US prosecutors previously filed civil asset forfeiture suits for assets allegedly bought with some of the stolen funds.

    Epic scandal

    The 1MDB scandal refers to a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions of dollars from a Malaysian investment fund set up in 2009 by former Prime Minister Najib Razak.to promote economic development in the Southeast Asian nation.

    The scale of scandal led to Najib's defeat in a general election in May, the first change in government in six decades. Najib is now facing criminal charges in Malaysia with his trial due to start next year. 

    An estimated $4.5bn was misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, by high-level officials of the fund and their associates, the US justice department alleged.

    Roughly $681m of that money is alleged to have ended up in private bank accounts belonging to Najib.

    The former prime minister admitted that there were "things that went wrong in 1MDB" during an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera's 101 East, though he maintains he was unaware of malfeasance and his "conscience is clear".

    Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, also appeared in court last month to face 17 charges of money laundering and unpaid taxes.

    As the scandal deepened, the country's opposition united behind former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who came out of retirement to lead the coalition to victory in May's election.

    Interview: Najib Razak

    101 East

    Interview: Najib Razak

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies