NEW YORK/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has struck a deal to recoup $1 billion in funds allegedly looted from a Malaysian state investment fund by fugitive financier Jho Low, in a record capture for a U.S. anti-corruption probe.
U.S. authorities say about $4.5 billion was siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), founded in 2009 by then- Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak.
Since 2016, the Justice Department, in its biggest ever anti-kleptocracy case, has filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize about $1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB funds.
Low, who called Wednesday’s agreement “historic” in a statement issued on his behalf, faces charges in both the United States and Malaysia over his central role in the scandal.
Low agreed to give up a private jet, high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London, and other assets totaling $700 million, the Justice Department said in a statement and court document filed on Wednesday.
That’s on top of a $126-million yacht and $140 million in other assets previously forfeited. If approved, the settlement will mark the largest civil forfeiture ever concluded by the Justice Department, it said.
“The message in this case is simple: the United States is not a safe haven for pilfered funds,” said U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna of the Central District of California.
The deal does not include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing and is not tied to the criminal action against Low. “I am very pleased to confirm that a landmark comprehensive, global settlement has been reached with the United States government,” Low said in the statement.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia would file a claim on the forfeited assets.
“The assets were bought with Malaysian money, we have proof that it was Malaysian money, we will now make a claim with the American government,” he told reporters on Thursday.
In May, the United States begun returning $200 million to Malaysia, following the sale of 1MDB-linked assets.
1MDB is the subject of investigations into corruption and money laundering in at least six countries.
Malaysian police last year filed charges and issued an arrest warrant for Low, whose whereabouts are unknown.
He has consistently denied wrongdoing and says the charges against him are politically motivated.
Low was believed to be living in the United Arab Emirates and has sought asylum in a third country, local news portal The Malaysian Insight reported on Thursday, citing unnamed sources.
When contacted, a spokesman for Low confirmed the financier had been offered asylum but declined to give further details.
“We understand that Mr. Low was offered asylum in August 2019 by a country that acts in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights,” the spokesman said.
Malaysian officials have previously said Low was believed to be in China.
Officials in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Deutsche Bank have all been caught up in probes into the multi-year conspiracy.
Goldman said earlier this month it was cooperating with the Justice Department and other government and regulatory investigations.
Malaysia has charged Goldman and 17 current and former directors of the bank’s units for allegedly misleading investors over bond sales totaling $6.5 billion that the bank helped raise for 1MDB.
A Malaysian court on Thursday fixed Dec. 16 to hear a request by prosecutors to move a criminal case against three Goldman units to a higher court.
Allegations that about $1 billion in 1MDB funds flowed into Najib’s personal accounts angered Malaysians, who voted his long-ruling coalition out of power in an election in May 2018.
Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were barred from leaving Malaysia soon after the election loss, and their lifestyle came under scrutiny, with the discovery of nearly $300 million worth of goods and cash at properties linked to him.
Najib now faces years in prison after being hit with 42 criminal charges related to losses at 1MDB and other government entities. He has consistently denied wrongdoing.
A Malaysian court will rule on Nov. 11 on whether to acquit Najib or call for him to enter his defense, in the first of several criminal trials against him.
Additional reporting by Bharath Manjesh and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru, Krishna N. Das in Kuala Lumpur, and Fathin Ungku in Singapore; Editing by Shailesh Kuber, Tom Brown, Shri Navaratnam, Lincoln Feast, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bernadette Baum