The seizure of The Equanimity luxury yacht in Bali, Indonesia, in late February this year, has once again brought the civil forfeiture suits by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) into the spotlight.
The DOJ had filed a series of the forfeiture suits in 2016 and 2017, seeking to seize assets worth nearly US$1.7 billion allegedly acquired using money siphoned off from the Malaysian fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
According to the DOJ, 1MDB officials and their associates had embezzled US$4.5 billion between 2009 and 2014, which was allegedly laundered through the global financial systems including the US. It is the most extensive action brought under its
Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. The department said that the money was used for personal gain.
They include purchasing luxury properties, artworks, a private jet, jewellery, funding movie production company which produced movies like "The Wolf of Wall Street". The Equanimity, which is said to belong to Malaysian businessperson Jho Low, was
one of the assets on the list.
Jho Low, whose full name is Low Taek Jho, was portrayed as the mastermind of the money laundering scheme in the DOJ lawsuit. Several other persons were named in the lawsuits, including Jho Low’s friend Riza Aziz, who is also the stepson of Malaysian
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, several 1MDB officers, and an unnamed "Malaysian Official 1", who was said to be Najib himself.
Several celebrities, including Hollywood actor Leonardo Dicaprio and model Miranda Kerr were dragged into the matter.
The lawsuits had categorised the money-laundering processes over the five-year period into four phases, namely the "Good Star phase", "Aabar BVI phase", "Tanore phase" and "Options Buyback phase".
The lawsuits consist several hundred pages long and provide a blow-by-blow account of the complex series of transaction. This article will break down the complexities of the suits and walk readers through the money trail.
Good Star Phase
According to the DOJ, more than US$1 billion was fraudulently diverted from 1MDB in September 2009, soon after its creation.
Between 2009 and 2011, 1MDB had entered a joint-venture agreement with PetroSaudi International (PSI), a private Saudi oil extraction company.
The joint venture (1MDB-PSI) aimed to exploit energy concessions PSI purportedly owned in Turkmenistan and Argentina.
Under the agreement, 1MDB had invested US$1 billion cash in the joint venture in exchange for a 40 percent equity interest. However, only US$300 million went into the joint venture’s account while the remaining US$700 million went to Good Star
Limited, a company belonging to Jho Low.
Two officials, who were named by DOJ as 1MDB Officer 1 and 2, had misrepresented to banks that Good Star was a subsidiary of PSI. 1MDB’s board of director was told that the US$700 million was used to settle the debt owed by the joint venture
Although Jho Low had no official position in 1MDB, he was an adviser in the formation of 1MDB’s predecessor, the Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA). The investment arm of Terengganu, a Malaysian state, was taken over by the federal government
and renamed as 1MDB in early 2009.
Jho Low built his relationship with Najib’s family through Riza, whom he has known since his days in university.
In June 2010, 1MDB had decided to dispose of its 40 percent equity interest in the joint venture. Instead of taking cash for the stake sale, 1MDB settled on US$1.2 billion in debt notes, which included purported profits.
Three months later, 1MDB-PSI joint venture received an additional loan of US$500 million from 1MDB. In May 2011, 1MDB had issued an extra US$330 million credit to the joint venture, but the money ended up in Good Star’s account.
As of Oct 25, 2011, a total of US$1.03 billion of 1MDB’s funds was diverted to Good Star. Low used US$35 million of it to purchase the Stratton Penthouse and the Stratton Flat in London, while diverted US$10,173,104 for the production of the
movie The Wolf of Wall Street.
Another beneficiary was PSI co-founder Tarek Obaid who used the money to acquire shares of a software engineering company Palantir Technologies.
Some of the money was distributed to 1MDB Officer 1, through an individual called Eric Tan.
In January 2017, a Singapore court disclosed that Eric Tan was, in fact, an alias for Jho Low.
Malaysian Official 1 (MO1), too, received US$20 million in this phase. The DOJ described MO1 as a "high-ranking official in the Malaysian government who also held a position of authority with 1MDB".
Malaysian minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan had said that MO1 is Najib, according to his interview with BBC in 2016. Najib had repeatedly denied he had involved in any wrongdoing
in the 1MDB saga.
Jho Low tried to mask the acquisition of assets using the ill-gotten funds in Good Star by going through law firms as well as a web of companies and his father.
Between Oct 21, 2009 and Oct 13, 2010, more than US$368 million in 11 wires was moved from Good Star to an Interest on Lawyer Account held by law firm Shearman & Sterling LLP (Shearman IOLA) in the United States.
Subsequently, the money was used to purchase luxury properties, a hotel and a private jet. They included the L'Ermitage Hotel, a Hillcrest property in Beverly Hill, a Park Laurel Condominium unit, and a Bombardier Global 5000 aircraft worth
millions of US dollars respectively.
The DOJ also found that Jho Low purchased assets using his father’s bank account, Larry.
Good Star transferred approximately US$508 million to Abu Dhabi-Kuwait-Malaysia Investment Corporation (ADKMIC) between June 28, 2011 and Sept 4, 2013. Low used ADKMIC for money laundering, DOJ claimed. Good Star’s account was closed on 5 Sept
2013 after the transactions.
Following this, ADKMIC transferred about US$327 million to Larry in three tranches in 2011 and 2012. Larry then wired the funds to an account in the name of Selune Ltd (US$30 million) and Jho Low (US$268 million) respectively.
Selune subsequently wired US$27 million to Shearman IOLA. The money was used as part of the funds to purchase Time Warner Penthouse.
Meanwhile, Jho Low used the money from Larry to acquire shares in EMI Music Publishing Group America Holdings Inc (EMI) with US$106,666,667 and transferred US$146,246,670 to Selune. US$36,246,670 of the US$146,246,670 was proceeds of the sale
of Qentas Townhouse to Riza in Aabar-BVI phase.
In acquiring stakes in EMI, the DOJ noted that Low represented that family resources were a significant source of his wealth.
"By funnelling money through his father’s account for a brief period of time, LOW created the appearance that funds in his personal account, which were used to acquire an interest in EMI Partner A, came from his father rather than from Good
Star or ADKMIC."
Jho Low and Selune Ltd collectively sent US$51,682,800 to an US-based law firm DLA Piper for the purchase of the Oriole Mansion, the Greene Condominium
and to acquire interest in Viceroy Hotel Group with the funds from Shearman IOLA.
In 2012, 1MDB raised US$3.5 billion in two separate bond offerings to acquire energy assets in Malaysia but a substantial portion of the proceeds - approximately US$1.367 billion - was misappropriated.
The bonds were guaranteed by International Petroleum Investments Company (IPIC), an investment entity owned by Abu Dhabi government.
In exchange, 1MDB agreed to provide IPIC’s subsidiary Aabar Investments PJS (Aabar) options to acquire a 49 percent interest in an energy asset involved.
1MDB received the proceeds of each of the bond issue in 2012, but the proceeds were almost immediately transferred to an entity called Aabar Investments PJS Limited (Aabar-BVI), a British Virgin Islands-registered corporation.
Aabar-BVI bore a similar name to the IPIC’s Aabar, but there was no affiliation between IPIC and Aabar-BVI. 1MDB later conceded that 1MDB might been a "victim of fraud".
At the time, Khadem Abdulla al-Qubaisi was the managing director of IPIC and the chairperson of Aabar. Mohamed Ahmed Badawy Al-Husseiny was the CEO of Aabar. However, both of them were also the director of Aabar-BVI.
"Khadem and Mohamed opened the account at BSI Bank in Lugano in the name of Aabar-BVI and used the account to facilitate the diversion of funds from 1MDB. Low was also integrally involved in setting up the Aabar-BVI Swiss Account and in arranging
for the fraudulent transfer of $1.367 billion from 1MDB to the Aabar-BVI Swiss Account."
A total of US$1.092 billion from Aabar-BVI was diverted through two overseas investments funds - Enterprise Emerging Market Funds (Enterprise) and Cistenique Investment Fund (Cistenique) - and transferred to Blackstone Asia Real Estate Partners
(Blackstone) which is owned by Eric Tan (Jho Low).
Two companies owned by Mohamed - Rayan Inc and MB Consulting LLC - received US$11.6 million and US$55 million from Blackstone respectively, while Vasco Investment owned by Khadem got US$472,750,000, which he later used to purchase the Walker
Tower Penthouse, Laurel Beverly Hills Mansion and a Hillcrest property.
MO1 also received US$30 million from Blackstone. The former 1MDB general counsel and executive director of group strategy Jasmine Loo got US$5 million which she used to purchase a residential unit at One Madison Park Condominium.
Another US$238 million from Aabar-BVI was wired to Red Granite Capital, an entity founded by Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz. As mentioned earlier, Riza is the stepson of Najib as described by the DOJ that Riza is a relative of MO1.
Riza then channelled the money to film production company Red Granite Pictures to produce films such as "The Wolf of Wall Street", "Daddy’s Home" and "Dumb and Dumber To".
The production of "The Wolf of Wall Street" received over US$60 million in the Good Star phase and Aabar-BVI phase. Red Granite Pictures reached a settlement with the US government
to the tune of US$60 million, and Riza will only draw a limited salary to cover his health insurance until the full settlement amount is paid.
A sum of US$94.3 million was sent from Red Granite Capital to Shearman IOLA to acquire several luxury properties. In particular, Riza spent US$17.5 million and US$33.5 million to buy a Hillcrest property and Park Laurel Condominium from Jho
Low, who had purchased the properties in Good Star phase.
Riza also spent US$4,289,760 from Red Granite Capital for movie posters.
"The walls of the Park Laurel Condominium, where Riza lived, are covered in movie posters that Riza acquired using funds from Aabar-BVI. Riza also gave away several posters as gifts, including to (Red Granite Picture co-founder Joey) McFarland,
(Hollywood actor Leonardo) DiCaprio, and the director of 'The Wolf of Wall Street'."
Meanwhile, Blackstone also wired a whopping US$321.3 million to Alsen Chance Holdings Limited, which was described as a company that did "consulting works for building and construction projects". US$1.2 million from Alsen Chance then used by
Riza to purchase the "Metropolis" poster, a framed, three-sheet colour lithograph poster created by the German artist Heinz SchulzNeudamm for the 1927 silent film "Metropolis".
Alsen Chance also wired US$11 million to the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino to settle Jho Low’s gambling debt. Aziz transferred at least US$41 million from Red Granite Capital to Alsen Chance for the same purpose.
"On or about July 15, 2012, Jho Low withdrew an aggregate cash amount of US$1,150,090 at the Venetian Casino: US$500,000 as a withdrawal of deposit, and US$650,090 as the redemption of casino chips and other gaming instruments."
"Several individuals gambled with Jho Low on this occasion, using his account. These individuals included Riza; McFarland; DiCaprio; and the 1MDB-SRC Officer, who was the former chief investment officer of 1MDB and was at the time the CEO of
another Ministry of Finance vehicle called SRC International."
Jho Low used the same modus operandi of creating the impression that he was using his family wealth to purchase a diamond ring and earrings worth US$2,842,475 for his mother, Evelyn Goh. Money from Alsen Chance was masked with pass through transactions
through his father’s account before being wired to Jho Low.
Jho Low also used US$142.25 million from Alsen Chance to acquire interests in Electrum Group, a private equity firm in the United States, that worth US$150 million.
Good Star received US$275.5 million from Alsen Chance, before wiring US$20.75 million to Khadem’s Vasco Investments.
In March 2013, 1MDB issued a US$3-billion bonds to generate funds for investment in a joint venture with Aabar called Abu Dhabi Malaysia Investment Company (ADMIC). The money was supposed to be used for the Tun Razak Exchange (TRX) project,
a financial centre in Kuala Lumpur that has yet to be completed.
However, more than US$1.26 billion in proceeds was diverted to a bank account held in the name of Tanore Finance Corporation through three overseas investments funds and a company, namely Devonshire Capital Growth Fund (Devonshire), Enterprise
and Cistenique, and Granton Property Holdings Limited which was owned by Eric Tan (Jho Low). Tanore had no legitimate affiliation with 1MDB or ADMIC, according to the DOJ.
US$681 million from Tanore was transferred to MO1 between March 21 and March 25, 2013. Of this amount, approximately US$620 million was returned to Tanore on Aug 26, 2013.
Najib denied taking public funds for personal gain, claiming the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family. The Malaysian attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali cleared Najib of wrongdoing,
adding that he had returned US$620 million to the "donor" in August 2013.
Based on the DOJ’s document, Eric Tan (Jho Low) ultimately used the returned money through intermediaries to purchase a 22-carat pink diamond pendant and necklace for the wife of MO1.
Eric Tan (Jho Low) also channelled more than US$137 million in the Tanore account for at least seven artworks, including:
An unnamed work by Mark Ryden (US$714,000)
An unnamed work by Ed Ruscha (US$367,500)
"Dustheads" by Jean-Michel Basquiat (US$48,843,750)
"Untitled – Standing Mobile" by Alexander Calder (US$5,387,750)
"Tic Tac Toe" by Alexander Calder (US$3,035,750)
"Concetto spaziale, Attese" by Lucio Fontana (US$7.95 million)
"Untitled (Yellow and Blue)" by Mark Rothko (US$71.55 million)
Tan later gifted Ryden’s unnamed artwork to Joey McFarland, the co-founder of Red Granite Picture and passed "Dustheads", "Untitled (Yellow and Blue)", "Concetto spaziale" and "Tic Tac Toe" pieces to Jho Low.
Jho Low again used his father Larry and brother Low Teck Szen to mask the origin of funds for several of the acquired assets. The money trail started from Granton and Tanore and ended up in Jho Low’s bank account after a series of opaque transactions
through his father and brother’s accounts.
Jho Low then used the money to purchase the Van Gogh’s "La maison de Vincent a Arles" painting, Claude Monet’s "Saint-Georges Majeur" and "Nymphéas" paintings, Stratton Office in Mayfair, London, and an 11.72-carat heart-shaped diamond as a gift to
model Miranda Kerr.
Part of the funds went through law firm DLA Piper for the acquisition of interests in Park Lane Hotel (US$202,206,876.48) and payment to Mohamed (US$1.25 million).
In May 2017, the DOJ forced developer Steven Witkoff, who partnered with Jho Low to acquire the interests in Park Lane Hotel in 2013, to put the hotel up for sale.
It is part of the department’s effort to forfeit the assets held by Jho Low.
Jho Low bought the Equanimity yacht with money transferred from Larry’s account and a US$105,188,722 loan from Sotheby’s Financial by using several pieces of artworks as collateral.
"The Equanimity is a luxury mega-yacht capable of carrying up to twenty-six guests and up to thirty-three crew members and includes a helicopter landing pad, an on-board gymnasium, a cinema, a massage room, a sauna, a steam room, an experiential
shower, and a plunge pool. In 2014, The Equanimity was awarded the prize for "Best in Show" at the Monaco Yacht Show."
The yacht was seized by the Indonesian authorities and the US Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) in Bali on Feb 28 this year.
Jho Low, through his spokesperson, expressed disappointment that the DOJ continues to seize assets despite what
he claimed was its inability to prove any impropriety.
According to a court filing made by the DOJ in March 26, 2018, the authority had applied to be the custodian of The Equanimity but the claimants to the vessel had sought to halt the seizure in Indonesian court.
Dicaprio was said to be the beneficiary of three artworks purchased using the proceeds of the 1MDB bond sale. He received a collage entitled "Redman One" by Jean-Michel Basquiat from Eric Tan (Jho Low) with the money in the Tanore account.
SRC, which at that time was 1MDB’s subsidiary, was used by Eric Tan (Jho Low) as an intermediary to purchase two gifts - a photograph entitled "Boy with the Toy Hand Grenade" by Diane Arbus and a painting entitled "Nature Morte au Crane de Taureau"
by Pablo Picasso - for Dicaprio. SRC was transferred to direct ownership by the Ministry of Finance in 2012.
It was reported that Dicaprio had surrendered the artworks mentioned above to the DOJ.
Meanwhile, Low Teck Szen used part of the money transferred from Larry (US$350,102,534) to acquire interests in Fly Wheel Sportss Inc, a Delaware corporation operating fitness clubs throughout the US.
Options Buyback Phase
In 2014, 1MDB secured two loans totalling US$1.225 billion from Deutsche Bank to buy back the options offered to IPIC’s subsidiary Aabar to acquire interests in energy assets.
However, more than US$850 million of the loan went to Aabar-BVI and another offshore entity bearing a similar name incorporated in Seychelles (Aabar-Seychelles).
"1MDB officials secured approval for these two loans through material misrepresentations and omissions to Deutsche Bank, including that the proceeds of the loans would be paid to a legitimate affiliate of IPIC."
Aabar-Seychelles was not affiliated with IPIC and Aabar. Mohamed was listed as its sole director. He was also the CEO and director of Aabar and Aabar-BVI respectively.
Subsequently, some of the loan proceeds were also indirectly transferred to Jasmine Loo and MO1, through two entity named Affinity Equity International Partners Limited and Blackrock Commodities (Global) Limited.
Despite the similarity in names, the DOJ noted that Blackrock Commodities (Global) Limited had no affiliation with the global investment management company BlackRock Inc.
Meanwhile, US$1.3 million from Aabar-Seychelles was used to purchase 27 different 18-carat gold necklaces and bracelets for MO1’s wife.
This was after more than US$71 million from Aabar-Seychelles was laundered through a series of pass-through accounts, and ultimately to World Merit Management Ltd within a two-week period.
The money went through a loop through Aabar International Investments Ltd and SRC International. Like Aabar-Seychelles and Aabar-BVI, Aabar International was an entity named to mimic the real IPIC subsidiary, Aabar Investments PJS.
The remaining money from Aabar-Seychelles was transferred to several other entities, such as Vista Equity International Partners Ltd, TKIL Capital Partners, Dragon Market and Dragon Dynasty, before reaching Jho Low.
Based on the DOJ’s document, Eric Tan (Jho Low), owned Affinity Equity, Blackrock, Vista Equity and TKIL Capital Partners. Jho Low held Dragon Market and Dragon Dynasty.
Jho Low also received money from Affinity Equity through Alpha Synergy Limited, a company also owned by him. In total, US$206.96 million of the bond proceeds, which were siphoned from 1MDB, were transferred to Jho Low’s bank account between June 3 and Nov 12, 2014.
He then used the money to purchase an 8.88-carat diamond pendant, an 11-carat pair of diamond earrings and a matching set of diamond earrings, necklace, ring, and bracelet to Kerr as gifts. Kerr had reportedly surrendered the gifts to the DOJ.
He also spent US$140,636,225 to purchase the superyacht The Equanimity.
The money laundering methods used in Options Buyback phase are similar to the previous stages, but there was one key difference. A significant amount of the Deutsche Bank loan was also used to cover the "hole" in 1MDB’s subsidiary Brazen Sky Limited.
It can be traced back to the money trail in Good Star phase in 2009, where 1MDB had supposedly invested US$1.83 billion to the 1MDB-PSI joint venture but US$1.03 billion of it was allegedly siphoned
for the personal benefit of Jho Low and his associates.
On Oct 10, 2015, 1MDB claimed that Brazen Sky was holding a US$2.318 billion in "fund units" which was redeemed from the joint venture. 1MDB claimed the "fund units" comprised its initial US$1.83 billion investment which was redeemed on top of
a US$488 million profit.
The DOJ claimed the "fund units" managed by little-known Bridge Partners Investment Management Limited, were "relatively worthless".
Two days after Aabar-Seychelles received US$233 million of a US$975 million loan from Deutsche Bank intended for 1MDB, it transferred US$111 million to Lambasa Global Opportunity Fund.
Lambasa’s function was similar to Enterprise and Cisenique, which was to function as a pass-through entity.
Almost immediately after that, Lambasa passed about US$110 million to Bridge Global Fund. A few days later, Bridge Global Fund transferred approximately US$110 million to Brazen Sky as "redemption" of fund units.
It was followed by Brazen Sky sending approximately US$94 million to 1MDB Global Investments Limited, another subsidiary of 1MDB.
"The purpose of this unnecessarily complicated funds flow was to create the appearance that fund units in the Brazen Sky Account were being redeemed for cash and being paid forward to 1MDB, thereby fraudulently disguising the fact that the fund
units were illiquid and relatively worthless."
The same pattern of fund flows was repeated on Sept 29, 2014, after Aabar-Seychelles received the second tranche of loan proceeds from Deutsche Bank. This time, the majority of the funds that transited through Brazen Sky were returned to Aabar-Seychelles
rather than being retained by 1MDB Global Investments. The cycle was repeated for another five times.
"This allowed the funds to be recycled again and again through the same circle of entities, thereby creating the appearance of multiple ‘redemptions’ using the same pool of money."
By the end of November 2014, proceeds from the first tranche of the loan had passed through Brazen Sky once and the second tranche of the loan had passed through Brazen Sky six times. Finally, it appeared as if Brazen Sky had redeemed US$1.412
billion from its "fund units".
Deutsche Bank Loan Proceeds Laundered Through Brazen Sky Account
Aabar-Seychelles to Lambasa (US$ mil)
Lambasa to Bridge Global (US$ mil)
Bridge GLobal to Brazen Sky (US$ mil)
Brazen Sky to 1MDB Global (US$ mil)
1MDB Global to Aabar Seychelles (US$ mil)
Sept 5 111
Sept 5 110
Sept 11 110
Sept 12 94
Oct 1 378
Oct 1 375
Oct 7 375
Oct 7 375
Oct 8 356
Oct 8 388
Oct 8 385
Oct 14 385
Oct 14 340
Oct 15 340
Oct 16 257
Oct 16 256
Oct 23 256
Oct 23 256
Oct 24 256
Oct 24 227
Oct 24 225
Oct 30 225
Nov 4 222
Nov 5 222
Nov 6 126
Nov 7 125
Nov 14 125
Nov 14 125
Nov 17 69
Nov 17 49
Nov 17 49
Nov 24 49
Nevertheless, the DOJ pointed that the movement of funds had created difficulty for 1MDB as it had used the "fund units" as collateral for the bank loan, which condition included that Brazen Sky cannot transfer the "units" out without the bank’s
As such, 1MDB had breached the loan agreement. prompting Deutsche Bank to demand early repayment of the US$975 million loan after it had found out the deceit in May 2015.
The Malaysian government announced the restructuring plan in the same month which paved the way for IPIC to come in with US$1 billion to help 1MDB for the loan repayment in exchange for certain assets.
A year later in April 2016, the white knight deal soured as IPIC argued that 1MDB and the Ministry of Finance did not meet some of their payment obligations, which 1MDB and the ministry had vehemently denied. As a result, the issue turned into
an arbitration case.
In April 2017, both IPIC and 1MDB had reached a settlement over the matter. 1MDB agreed to pay IPIC US$1.2 billion and both parties would discuss the payments made by 1MDB to "certain entities", which were believed referring to Aabar-BVI and Aabar-Seychelles.
The Malaysian government had paid US$1.2 billion to IPIC end of last year.
Several banks in Switzerland and Singapore were fined and ordered close by the authorities. Among others, the Swiss government will absorb CHF95 million (approximately US$100 million) from 1MDB-linked funds seized from several banks as there are
Before that in January 2017, Jho Low’s family also won a court action in New Zealand to transferred several assets to a new trustee, in a bit to protect the assets from being seized by the DOJ.
The assets, worth US$256 million, include the Bombardier Jet, the Hillcrest property in Beverly Hills and three other properties.
It was reported that Republican donor Elliott Broidy, a close ally of US President Donald Trump,
was trying to negotiate a deal with Jho Low to drop the investigation.
The 1MDB probe in Malaysia is stalled with police claiming that there had been no new developments. Inspector-general of police Mohamed Fuzi Harun claimed police had determined there was nothing to link Jho Low with 1MDB.
The 1MDB issue has become a hot potato for the Malaysian government since the last general election in 2013. The opposition is expected to leverage on this in its campaign to unseat Najib and the ruling coalition in the coming general election,
which is widely speculated to be held in late April or early May this year.
Any new developments on the 1MDB case on the global front, coupled with inaction locally, will harm the Barisan Nasional’s standing in the national polls.