US calls 1MDB scandal 'kleptocracy at its worst'

The United States has called the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal "kleptocracy at its worst".
The United States has called the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal "kleptocracy at its worst". PHOTO: REUTERS

The United States has called the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal "kleptocracy at its worst", just as Prime Minister Najib Razak is preparing to rally Malaysia's ruling party at its last national congress before a general election due within months.

US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions on Monday said the Department of Justice (DOJ) "is working to provide justice to the victims of this alleged scheme".

"In total, 1MDB officials allegedly laundered more than US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) in funds through a complex web of opaque transactions and fraudulent shell companies with bank accounts in countries ranging from Switzerland and Singapore to Luxembourg and the United States. This is kleptocracy at its worst," he said at the Global Forum on Asset Recovery in Washington hosted by the US and Britain.

His remarks came a day before Malaysia's ruling Umno kicked off its annual summit.

Yesterday, Datuk Seri Najib spoke to top party delegates at a closed-door briefing.

1MDB's troubles made global headlines in 2015, when more than US$700 million deposited via companies linked to the state investment fund was found in Mr Najib's personal bank accounts. The Prime Minister has insisted the money was a donation from Saudi royals, and has been cleared in Malaysia of any wrongdoing.

The scandal has largely faded into the background, especially for rural Malaysians - the core vote bank for Umno - although urbanites more familiar with 1MDB's complex financial dealings still harbour misgivings over the premier's alleged role in the state firm's debts, which at one time reached RM51 billion.

The ongoing DOJ probe into the state fund had in its documents referred to a "Malaysian Official 1" who was said to have received huge sums of money originating from 1MDB. While Mr Najib was not specifically named in the filings, a member of his Cabinet had confirmed that Mr Najib is "Malaysian Official 1".

Mr Najib's Sept 12 visit to the White House demonstrated to his critics he could travel to the US without fear of being arrested despite the ongoing DOJ probe.

Attorney-General Sessions detailed in his speech how "1MDB was created by the Malaysian government to promote long-term economic development for the benefit of the Malaysian people".

"But allegedly corrupt officials and their associates reportedly used the funds for a lavish spending spree: US$200 million for real estate in Southern California and New York. US$130 million in artwork. US$100 million in an American music label. Not to mention a US$265 million yacht," he said.

Shannon Teoh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'US calls 1MDB scandal 'kleptocracy at its worst''. Print Edition | Subscribe