It’s a scandal bursting with juicy details, celebrity cameos and webs of confusing information. On February 12, prosecutors in Malaysia will begin unraveling some of it when the country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak appears in court on charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.
Other alleged players in the scandal — chief among them the international financier Jho Low — remain at large, out of the reach of Malaysian and US authorities.
In early 2009 Najib, weeks into his premiership, ordered the creation of a state investment fund initially worth $1.2 billion, which would later be renamed 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.
“(These funds) were intended to grow the Malaysian economy and support the Malaysian people. Instead, they were stolen, laundered through American financial institutions and used to enrich a few officials and their associates,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 2016, after the US Department of Justice launched a case against 1MDB.
From the beginning, those in charge of the fund were allegedly siphoning off cash for themselves and allies, misappropriating more than $1 billion in 2009 alone.
Both Low and Najib have repeatedly denied the charges laid against them. They accuse Malaysian authorities of pursuing a politically motivated prosecution.
While studying at the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, Low launched an investment company with an initial capital injection of $25 million, which he said was “mainly provided by my family and close Middle Eastern and South-East Asian friends.”
By 2010, Low claimed, the value of his investments had grown to upwards of $1 billion. However, prosecutors allege the source of most of his money was the 1MDB fund.
In Malaysia and New York, where Low spent much of his time, the financier became a regular presence in gossip columns courtesy of friendships with celebrities including Hilton and Lohan. In the same Star interview, Low denied widely circulated reports that he had spent more than $2 million during a trip to St Tropez.
“I think there is a pattern of trying to paint me as this person who orders a lot of champagne excessively,” he said.
Through Aziz, who ran a Los Angeles-based movie production company called Red Granite Pictures, Low expanded his celebrity network, palling around with the likes of DiCaprio and former Victoria’s Secret model Kerr.
“This is a case where life imitated art,” a US official said in 2016. “The associates of these corrupt 1MDB officials are alleged to have used some of the illicit proceeds of their fraud scheme to fund the production of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ a movie about a corrupt stockbroker who tried to hide his own illicit profits in a perceived foreign safe haven.”
How it all came crashing down
Following the reports, Malaysian officials raided 1MDB’s offices in Kuala Lumpur and investigations were also launched in Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland and the US. Najib told reporters the wrongdoers would be brought to justice.
Even as reporting on the scandal continued, and US authorities launched an investigation and began seizing assets in early 2017, it seemed unlikely Najib would face prosecution — he had an iron grip on Malaysian politics and had passed several laws seemingly designed to stymie discussion of 1MDB.
On February 12, that opportunity will present itself as Malaysia’s trial of the century begins.
Of the main alleged conspirators, however, only Najib will be in the dock. Low is believed to be hiding out in China, defying attempts by Malaysia to extradite him.
“It is clear that Mr. Low cannot get a fair trial in Malaysia, where the regime has proven numerous times that they have no interest in the rule of law.”