Ex-Goldman banker Roger Ng rolled dice on US trial at lawyer's urging

Roger Ng was convicted of conspiring to violate anti-bribery laws and launder money and now faces a prison term as long as three decades. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES) - Former Goldman Sachs banker Roger Ng was in a squalid prison in South-east Asia for his role in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal when his New York lawyer gave him a way out.

He persuaded Ng to come to the US first for trial, rather than wait for the completion of the case in his native Malaysia. He did, and lived in New York free on bond for almost three years.

On Friday (April 8), Ng was convicted of conspiring to violate anti-bribery laws and launder money and now faces a prison term as long as three decades.

"I told him you'd be far better off in the United States, where we have a real system and a real trial," defence attorney Marc Agnifilo said after the verdict.

"I've rethought that decision ten thousand times."

It took its toll. Mr Agnifilo said his client last saw his daughter Victoria when she was six years old, after Malaysia barred Ng's wife, Ms Hwee Bin Lim, from leaving the country.

Ms Lim was allowed to leave only for the New York trial, after the US gave her a "safe passage" letter agreeing not to prosecute her. She testified in her husband's defence.

1MDB "is a personal disaster in the life of that family," Mr Agnifilo said.

Ng, formerly Goldman Sachs Group's head of investment banking in Malaysia, had been locked up for six months in Kuala Lumpur when he agreed to waive an extradition fight and travel to Brooklyn in US custody.

On his arrival, he was released on a US$20 million (S$27.3 million) bond and had to wear an electronic ankle bracelet to track him while he awaited trial. Following the verdict on Friday, he was allowed to remain free pending his sentencing.

Mr Agnifilo, who vowed to challenge the conviction, said he and Ng's lawyers in Malaysia are coordinating their efforts on his next legal steps.

"I have faith in our system, because I'm from here," he said. "I think he still does, even though he's not from here."

Mr Breon Peace, US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, called the verdict a victory.

He said the scheme was “massive in its scale” and “brazen in its execution”.

“Today’s verdict is a victory for not only the rule of law but also for the people of Malaysia for whom the fund was supposed to help by raising money for projects to develop their country’s economy,” Mr Peace said.

“The defendant and his cronies saw 1MDB not as an entity to do good for the people of Malaysia but as a piggy bank to enrich themselves.”

The trial, which began in mid-February in federal court in Brooklyn, is likely to be the only criminal trial in the United States to arise from the scandal.

The stolen billions funded lavish lifestyles for powerful Malaysians – including the country’s former prime minister – and others, buying paintings by Van Gogh and Monet, paying for luxury properties from London to Beverly Hills and helping finance the Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

Jho Low, a big-spending Malaysian businessman and the architect of the scheme, was indicted along with Ng, but he is a fugitive and is believed to be living in China.

Tim Leissner, a former Goldman partner and the government’s star witness during the trial, is scheduled to be sentenced in July; he pleaded guilty to bribery and money laundering charges in 2018.

Low is accused of pocketing nearly US$1 billion in diverted funds from a series of bond offerings that Goldman had arranged for the 1MDB fund.

Leissner got more than US$60 million in kickbacks, and prosecutors said Ng had received US$35 million in illegal proceeds.

Federal prosecutors have said others – including former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his family as well as officials in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – received hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for approving Goldman as the main underwriter on the bond deals.Mr Najib was ousted from power and later was convicted by a Malaysian court and sentenced to up to 12 years in jail. He has filed an appeal.

The trial was unusual almost from the start: The proceedings were delayed for several days because federal prosecutors were slow in turning over potentially critical documents to the defence, which Ng’s lawyers have said hampered their ability to prepare their case and could be grounds for an appeal.

It also featured testimony from a star witness who admitted being a prolific liar.

Leissner, once a rising star at Goldman in Asia, was on the stand for 10 days, including six days of a blistering cross-examination.

He was forced to admit to initially lying to federal agents, to his fellow partners at Goldman, and to his girlfriends and wives.

The litany of lies that Leissner had to confess to on the stand was long and in some cases unbelievable.

He admitted to twice being married to two women at the same time.

He said he had delivered a fake divorce decree to his current wife, model and fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons, when he was persuading her to marry him. (The couple, who have two children, are estranged.)

And he said that while he was dating Ms Simmons he communicated with her using a fake email account he had created in the name of his second wife, Ms Judy Chan.

Leissner was also forced to acknowledge lying to investigators about his actions regarding 1MDB and was grilled about earlier statements that conflicted with what he said on the stand.

When pressed, Leissner admitted he “lied a lot”.

In his closing argument, Mr Agnifilo told the jury that Leissner was “one of a kind” when it comes to lying and couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth on anything, including his involvement in the bribery and kickback scheme.

But prosecutors said Leissner was telling the truth about the crimes Ng was charged with, including a US$35 million payment that authorities said was an illegal kickback.

Ng’s wife testified the US$35 million that she and her husband received were the proceeds from a US$6 million investment she had made many years prior with Ms Chan.

Early in the trial, Mr Agnifilo told Judge Margo K. Brodie, chief judge for the Eastern District of New York, that he was considering asking for a mistrial because of what he called “government misconduct” for not turning over tens of thousands of pages of Leissner’s emails until after the trial had started.

Prosecutors called the delay “inexcusable” and blamed it on a separate legal team responsible for reviewing documents for potential legal privilege issues.

Mr Agnifilo decided against asking for a mistrial, but legal experts have said the delays could be used to argue for a new trial on appeal.

Leissner’s cooperation led Goldman Sachs’ Malaysia subsidiary to plead guilty to a single charge of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – the first instance of Goldman appearing before a US judge and admitting it was guilty of a crime.

The bank agreed to pay US$2.3 billion in fines to federal authorities and billions more to authorities in other countries, including Malaysia.

The bank also entered into a three-year deferred prosecution agreement with US authorities.

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