No conflict of interest in hiring of lawyer, says Malaysia's A-G

Ms Sitpah Selvaratnam, who is heading the team of lawyers representing 1MDB and the Malaysian government in the claim over Equanimity, is a consultant at Attorney-General Tommy Thomas' former law firm. He says she was hired for her expertise in marit
Ms Sitpah Selvaratnam, who is heading the team of lawyers representing 1MDB and the Malaysian government in the claim over Equanimity, is a consultant at Attorney-General Tommy Thomas' former law firm. He says she was hired for her expertise in maritime law.PHOTO: BERNAMA

PETALING JAYA • Malaysia's Attorney-General Tommy Thomas has defended the appointment of a consultant to his former law firm to head the team of lawyers representing 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the government in the claim over superyacht Equanimity.

Mr Thomas was responding to an allegation that there was a conflict of interest when the Attorney-General's Chambers hired Ms Sitpah Selvaratnam in its work, as she had been a consultant in Mr Thomas' former firm over the past eight years.

Mr Thomas said in a statement yesterday that Ms Sitpah is a prominent expert in maritime law. She is the longtime chairman of the Bar Council's Shipping and Admiralty Law Committee and the founding president of the International Malaysian Society of Maritime Law.

Additionally, she will not be paid any fees for doing the work linked to the yacht.

"Her services are rendered to us without any charge to the taxpayer. It must be kept in mind that these legal proceedings are brought for the benefit of Malaysia," said the Attorney-General in his statement.

"Accordingly, we are entitled to Malaysia's best shipping lawyers. There is no question of conflict of interest because we are all on the same side."

He added that Ms Sitpah has been "involved in numerous arrests of ships and vessels, and also opposing arrests in more than 25 years of specialised practice".

The vessel reportedly worth US$250 million (S$341 million) was allegedly bought by businessman Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low, using funds stolen from the 1MDB state fund.

1MDB is now under new management after the Pakatan Harapan alliance won federal power in May.

Mr Thomas said the most effective basis of invoking the court's jurisdiction over the superyacht is admiralty law or the law of shipping.

Referring to Ms Sitpah, he said: "She is therefore the obvious choice to advise Chambers and myself on the matter... As the transactions were intricate and layered corporate deals carried out by Jho Low and advisers to hide the true source of funds used to purchase the yacht, drafting the legal papers required skill and expertise in shipping law and corporate law."

Equanimity is currently docked at the Boustead Cruise Centre in Port Klang, after it arrived there on Tuesday. A sheriff of the Admiralty Court on that day served a warrant of arrest on the vessel by pasting it on the mast.

Besides Ms Sitpah, lawyers Jeremy Joseph and Ong Chee Kwan were also appointed to represent the claimants.

They will be paid normal commercial rates, said the Attorney-General. Mr Thomas added that both Ms Sitpah and Mr Joseph were approached by foreign parties to act for them in this matter, but they had declined.

"The real test of (Ms Sitpah's) experience and expertise would come into play if and when Jho Low or any other party applies to set aside the warrant of arrest. The arguments would then be vigorously put forward by all sides when the court hears the matter on its merits, and it is critical that Malaysia has the best barristers.

"Litigation is dynamic; unpredictable events occur in court, and Malaysia's case must be in safe hands," said Mr Thomas.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2018, with the headline 'No conflict of interest in hiring of lawyer, says Malaysia's A-G'. Print Edition | Subscribe