1MDB case hits setback as judge rules against US Department of Justice

US prosecutors have been seeking to recoup at least US$1 billion. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - A US judge rejected the Justice Department's attempts to seize US$325 million (S$438 million) from an oil exploration joint venture linked to the 1MDB scandal, in a setback for federal prosecutors in a multibillion-dollar kleptocracy case.

The US ruling emerged at a London court hearing this week, where Petrosaudi Oil Services (Venezuela) is battling to win the release of hundreds of millions of dollars at the heart of the case.

US District Judge Dale Fischer in Los Angeles earlier this month granted Petrosaudi's request to dismiss the Justice Department's forfeiture claim, ruling that the government had failed to make an adequate allegation between the money and any criminal offence.

The Justice Department (DOJ) created the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in 2010, with the aim of seizing proceeds from foreign corruption.

"It appears that the government would like to take advantage of an inference that one or more PetroSaudi entities were knowingly involved in the theft of the US$700 million and the subsequent laundering and cover-up without actually making any allegations to that effect," Judge Fischer said in her March 9 ruling.

The 1MDB scandal has spurred court cases around the world, as the Malaysian authorities try to track down more than US$4 billion that was siphoned off from the country's economic development fund.

US prosecutors, for their part, have been seeking to recoup at least US$1 billion that was allegedly spent on yachts, and paintings by Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, and other luxury goods.

The DOJ alleges that the alleged perpetrators of the 1MDB scam pledged US$1 billion in Malaysian state funds to a proposed joint venture between Petrosaudi and PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil producer, only to redirect US$700 million of that into their own account for their personal benefit, leaving the venture with just US$300 million.

The Justice Department has until March 29 to file an amended complaint.

A Justice Department spokesman and the prosecutors leading the forfeiture effort, who've also been heavily involved in the broader 1MDB asset recovery efforts, didn't return messages seeking comment.

Two Petrosaudi executives are the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland, where they were based, and face charges of engaging in a criminal conspiracy in Malaysia linked to 1MDB.

Messages left with Mr Andy Kerman, who represents one of the two Petrosaudi executives under investigation in Switzerland, went unanswered. A lawyer at Baker & Hostetler, which represents Petrosaudi in the US case, declined to comment.

Meanwhile in London, Petrosaudi is fighting to release more than US$300 million it was awarded by a Paris arbitration court in July in its dispute with PDVSA.

The money has been frozen since PDVSA unsuccessfully pushed for an asset freeze and authorities in the US and Malaysia moved to seize it.

Judge Robert Miles in London said on Tuesday (March 23) the funds should be routed from an escrow account held by London law firm Clyde & Co to the UK court itself as he allowed a transfer of almost US$440,000 to Petrosaudi to pay for legal expenses.

PDVSA had briefly secured a freeze of the assets, before it was overturned, because of what it said were allegations that the funds were linked to "money-laundering, bribery and corruption connected to the alleged fraud in Malaysia".

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