ST responds to 1MDB whistle-blower Xavier Andre Justo's 'hidden hand' claims

Mr Xavier Andre Justo was an IT head at the London office of PetroSaudi, which ran an energy joint venture with 1MDB from 2009 to 2012.
Mr Xavier Andre Justo was an IT head at the London office of PetroSaudi, which ran an energy joint venture with 1MDB from 2009 to 2012.PHOTO: REUTERS

Whistle-blower Xavier Andre Justo has alleged that an interview on the 1MDB controversy that he gave to The Straits Times in 2015 was scripted.

He said he had been told what to say in a confession to help secure an early release from prison, and had to repeat his story in an interview. The Straits Times was picked for that interview, he said.

He added that the people behind this plan were PetroSaudi director Patrick Mahony and British private detective Paul Finnegan, according to a report published in The Edge Malaysia last Friday.

In 2015, in the Bangkok prison where he was being held, Mr Justo told ST's then Indochina bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh that he had been promised US$2 million (S$2.7 million) by a group of people in exchange for data he stole from his former employer PetroSaudi.

He said the group included Sarawak Report founder Clare Rewcastle-Brown. But he was never paid, he said.

He also said the group told him they planned to modify the data to bring down then Prime Minister Najib Razak's government. He added that they had said they would celebrate with champagne the day that happened.

  • ST's response

  • "If Mr Justo's new claims are true, they are disappointing.

    I pursued the story as a professional journalist, trying various ways to get details on the case and access to Mr Justo. I put in a request to his Thai lawyer for an interview. When I was told by the lawyer I could interview him, I proceeded in good faith and reported his remarks accurately.

    More often than not, in interviews newsmakers tell their side of the story. This seemed no different.

    Whatever deals Mr Justo had made, or what his deeper calculation was, I was unaware of.

    To verify the claims and as per good journalistic practice, we asked for reactions from key people he named - and we used their reactions as well."

    ST correspondent Nirmal Ghosh

ST's report quoted Ms Rewcastle-Brown as rubbishing Mr Justo's allegations as "bunkum".

The day after ST ran its report, The Edge's owner Tong Kooi Ong issued a statement in response, acknowledging that The Edge had misled Mr Justo, but claims that they would tamper with the data were false. They had offered to pay him for the information related to the 1MDB saga, but never had any intention of actually paying him, Mr Tong said.

The statement read: "Yes, we misled him. But that was the only way to get hold of the evidence to expose how a small group of Malaysians and foreigners cheated the people of Malaysia of US$1.83 billion."

In its latest report on Friday, The Edge's publisher Ho Kay Tat acknowledged this statement made after the ST report, but added that he had also in 2015 "denied we were involved in any attempt to bring down Najib by publishing fake news about 1MDB; nor did we tell Justo we had such an intention".

"I said we were only out to get to the bottom of 1MDB's financial woes and we had found from what Justo had shown us that a scam had taken place," he said.

He went on to add that Mr Justo told him about the ST interview and the events leading up to it in a meeting after Mr Najib was ousted in the May 9 election.

Mr Ho alleged that the "prepared" interview was done in exchange for Mr Justo being released early from the Bangkok jail.

Mr Ho also questioned why ST's Mr Ghosh had been allowed to interview Mr Justo in prison at a time when even the Malaysian police could not meet him. He made these comments in The Edge Malaysia's 24-page special report on the 1MDB financial scandal.

Mr Justo was an IT head at the London office of PetroSaudi, which ran an energy joint venture with 1MDB from 2009 to 2012.

Since the May 9 election, he has met Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and given interviews to several Malaysian news outlets. He also made two trips last week to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to help with investigations into the 1MDB probe.

Recounting his recent meeting with Mr Justo, Mr Ho wrote: "He said after he was arrested and charged with blackmail, he was kept in a lockup with 50 others, and everyone was virtually sleeping on top of each other. After a week, he was told he had a choice either to cooperate or expect to languish in jail for many years. He was also told he would be out in less than a year if he agreed to make confessions that were prepared for him. He also had to give an interview to a reporter from the ST."

Mr Ho also quoted Mr Justo as saying: "They handed me a list of 50 questions and answers that I was supposed to use for my interview just before I saw him (Nirmal). Everything I told him was prepared by them (Mahony and Finnegan) and I was also told not to bring up the name Jho Low."

 
 

Responding to the allegations in The Edge report, ST's Mr Ghosh yesterday said he had approached the story in a professional manner.

"If Mr Justo's new claims are true, they are disappointing. I pursued the story as a professional journalist, trying various ways to get details on the case and access to Mr Justo. I put in a request to his Thai lawyer for an interview.

"When I was told by the lawyer I could interview him, I proceeded in good faith and reported his remarks accurately," he said.

"More often than not, in interviews newsmakers tell their side of the story. This seemed no different.

"Whatever deals Mr Justo had made, or what his deeper calculation was, I was unaware of. To verify the claims and as per good journalistic practice, we asked for reactions from key people he named - and we used their reactions as well."

The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez defended Mr Ghosh, who was then based in Bangkok but has since moved to Washington as US bureau chief for the paper, noting that he did what any good journalist would do, which is to work relentlessly to get access to a key player in an ongoing story of interest to readers.

ST was neither aware of any hidden hand, nor party to any deals, he said. "Our approach to this story was standard and professional," said Mr Fernandez, who is also editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English, Malay and Tamil Media Group.

"Every news organisation was pursuing this story and trying to get to speak to Justo. Nirmal managed to get access, and got the story. He did a professional and creditable job. That was our only purpose in running this story."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 27, 2018, with the headline 'ST responds to whistle-blower's 'hidden hand' claims'. Print Edition | Subscribe