1MDB stolen funds witnesses are scared to talk, FBI says

A construction worker talks on the phone in front of the 1MDB billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Feb 3, 2016.
A construction worker talks on the phone in front of the 1MDB billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Feb 3, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - Possible witnesses to the alleged looting of billions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) are too scared to talk to US investigators because they fear retaliation, according the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Some people in "certain foreign countries" already assisting the criminal probe are concerned for their safety, while others say it's too dangerous to cooperate, according to an FBI request to keep the names of its informants secret from the alleged masterminds of the 1MDB conspiracy.

Individuals who would otherwise be willing to provide information have told the government they're worried about putting "the safety and security of both themselves and their families at serious risk", the FBI said Tuesday (Sept 5) in a federal court filing in Los Angeles.

The US Justice Department last month asked a judge to put on hold a dozen-plus civil forfeiture lawsuits seeking more than US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in assets in the US, the UK and Switzerland while it's conducting a criminal investigation into funds siphoned from Malaysia's state development fund.

The targeted assets were acquired by Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low; Riza Aziz, stepson of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak; and Khadem al Qubaisi, former managing director of Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Co.

The trusts holding the assets on behalf of Low, Aziz, al Qubaisi and their families are contesting the forfeiture actions and oppose the request to put the civil cases on hold.

The Low trusts have asked the US to supply it with the identities of witnesses, sources of evidence, and thousands of documents that are relevant to the criminal investigation, according to the FBI.

The FBI cited Malaysian news reports of local officials who have been arrested because of their purported role in investigating the 1MDB embezzlement.

As recently as Aug 30, Malaysian media reported that the driver of former Malaysian Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail was shot and wounded as a possible warning to the former prosecutor not to cooperate with the US, the FBI said.

Abdul Gani opened the initial 1MDB investigation, according to the FBI's filing. He was replaced as attorney-general in 2015.

The US investigation is part of a global effort to track how much of the US$6 billion that 1MDB raised for development projects was embezzled or involved in money laundering.

Switzerland, Singapore and Luxembourg are among the countries also investigating the roles played by banks and individuals.

Najib, who until last year was the chairman of 1MDB's advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by Malaysia's attorney general.

Low issued a statement in June, in response to a second round of forfeiture lawsuits, saying the US government was continuing "inappropriate efforts to seize assets despite not having proven that any improprieties have occurred".

In those cases, the Justice Department alleged that a US$1.29 million heart-shaped diamond and a US$3.8 million diamond pendant Low gave in 2014 to his then-girlfriend, actress Miranda Kerr, were bought with stolen money.

Low allegedly also gave a US$3.2 million Picasso painting to actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the lead in The Wolf Of Wall Street, a movie the US says was financed by Aziz using misappropriated 1MDB funds.

The case is US v The Wolf Of Wall Street, 16-cv-05362, US District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).