It’s April 2013 in New York. Ensconced in a Chelsea studio bubbling with celebrities and champagne, an international man of mystery records his vanity music project. The ballad the 30-year-old sings is called “Void of a Legend.” The man calls himself Jho Low. At one point in his recording session, rapper Busta Rhymes and super-producer Pharrell Williams show up. Low shouts at Busta, “Yo! I own you! You’re my bitch!”
The Malaysian financial wunderkind is drunkenly referring to the fact that he now co-owns EMI Group Limited, a music publishing company, and thus, Busta’s rhymes. Nonetheless, it’s obviously a tense moment — a non-black man telling a black man that he owns him. Pharrell has to step in and calm the situation down. This is the beginning of the end, but no one knows it yet.
Five months later, halfway around the world in Thailand, a man named Xavier Justo plots revenge against his former business partners, men who are also partnered with Jho Low. A son of Spaniards who’d emigrated to Switzerland, Justo is a former Swiss banker, but more importantly, he’s a man with a world-shaking grudge. His ex-partners cut him out of a business that’s suddenly, mysteriously, worth more than a billion dollars. He wants the $2 million promised to him in his severance agreement that he never received, money he feels is rightfully his.
He decides to blackmail his former partners and emails them a threat: He has 90 gigabytes of incriminating emails and data on illegal investments and money transfers; unless he gets his two mill, he’ll leak it to the press. It’s a risky move. After all, his former partners have powerful friends — one of the co-founders of the company is a Saudi prince.
In that same summer of 2013, Leonardo DiCaprio has just finished shooting The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s one of his finest performances. The film details the rise and fall of a financial crimes mastermind, Jordan Belfort, based on his searingly-honest memoir. The great irony is that there’s a far greedier international money-laundering scheme secretly paying for the film. One day, it will probably inspire best-selling books and possibly a movie, too. Which raises the question: Who will play Leonardo DiCaprio?
Because whoever it is, they’ll have a big part in the film — i.e., both Low and DiCaprio have starring roles in a 251-page Department of Justice indictment documenting the multibillion dollar criminal scheme. Low, the alleged mastermind of what Attorney General Loretta Lynch referred to as the greatest kleptocracy the world has ever seen, was DiCaprio’s friend. They’d partied together in Vegas and Cannes; they schemed together to beat the system in Hollywood. Most of all, though, he handed DiCaprio the money to make his dream project — The Wolf of Wall Street — that no one in Hollywood would bankroll.
Again, in a cosmic irony, DiCaprio desperately wanted to make a movie that deeply examined the sort of greed that rots the soul and ruins our natural world, yet this highly intelligent, sensitive actor never recognized this same greed when he partnered with it in reality. He somehow missed it when Low gave him a Basquiat painting worth $9.2 million and a Picasso worth $3.2 million. He also missed it when, in that same summer of 2013, two producers of the original Dumb and Dumber were excluded from the sequel and countersued Red Granite, the production company that was making both that movie and The Wolf of Wall Street. The veteran producers alleged in their lawsuit, later amended, that they’d been informed of a vast criminal conspiracy underwriting the company:
“Red Granite is funded with monies that include proceeds from offenses against a foreign nation that involve bribery of public officials, or misappropriation, theft or embezzlement of public funds by a public official. Plaintiffs are informed and believe that public officials in Asia and the Middle East have taken bribes and/or misappropriated, stolen or embezzled funds, and that those ill-gotten funds have then been invested in Red Granite.”
In the wake of this multibillion dollar legal scandal, DiCaprio said nothing, right until the U.S. government filed a criminal asset forfeiture and demanded he hand over his ill-gotten artwork and an Oscar he’d been given as a gift (to be clear, though, not the one he’d earned for his work in The Revenant). The feds also asked the actor to secretly testify before a grand jury. In a prepared statement from his reps, DiCaprio signaled his new willingness to learn about what justice will look like for the Malaysian people who were robbed by his former friend and partner, Jho Low: “Both Mr. DiCaprio and (the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation) continue to be entirely supportive of all efforts to assure that justice is done in this matter. Mr. DiCaprio is grateful for the lead and instruction of the government on how to accomplish this.”
Since they can’t get back the stolen millions used to bankroll DiCaprio’s dreams, part of accomplishing justice in this case means the U.S. government now owns the rights and royalties of The Wolf of Wall Street. As far as justice goes, it’s extremely poetic: a film about guys who believed they were above the law until they got caught by the feds was made by guys who believed they were above the law until they, too, got caught by the feds.
Art imitating life imitating art.
* * * * *
Low Taek Jho was born a Malaysian son of privilege in 1981, but he wasn’t from an ultra-wealthy Malaysian family. If anything, good with numbers and sharp-minded, his family placed their future in his hands. In particular, they sent him to Harrow, a private school in London founded by a charter from Elizabeth I back in 1572. His classmates were sons of kings and nephews of prime ministers. And in many ways, British private schools are a lot like prison — they’re a great place to learn to be a better criminal.
To that end, Low has said his private-school days absolutely shaped his future: “There were a few key relationships which I started to develop there. Harrow had lots of children of prominent European, Asian and Middle Eastern families. That’s when I met the former King of Jordan’s son, among others. … That’s when I felt that I built the core foundation of contacts for the future. That’s quite important, because that’s when you know them as friends, and you build the trust level for the future as opposed to meeting someone during the course of your business life.”
After Harrow, Low transferred to Wharton School of Business. He made a name for himself on campus with the nickname “the Asian Great Gatsby.” He was a schemer, a striver, an operator, and everyone knew it. He once invited his Wharton classmate Ivanka Trump on a gambling trip to Atlantic City that he organized. She declined his invite, or so he claimed. He told friends Ivanka said, “She’d never set foot in one of her father’s ‘skeevy casinos.’”
It seems the socially-awkward Low had a thing for rich, mildly attractive, blonde daughters of famous American families. Because while at Wharton, Low developed a well-known crush on Paris Hilton. His roommates say he watched House of Wax, her debut movie, at least a half-dozen times. Little did Low know that, one day, a drunken Paris Hilton would regularly party with him, and be photographed with his sweaty, alcohol-flushed face on her shoulder.
After Wharton, Low returned to Malaysia. He tried his hand at a few businesses, but none was very successful. According to the New York Times, Low did help “a Kuwaiti bank purchase a high-rise complex.” The Times reports that Low next “formed an investment group that included a Malaysian prince, a Kuwaiti sheikh and a friend from the United Arab Emirates who went on to become ambassador to the United States and Mexico.” After that, he partnered with Riza Aziz, a friend he’d met back when they both attended private school in London.
Together, Low and Aziz won the backing of Aziz’s stepfather, Najib Razak, a man who at the time was the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, but in a very short time was elected the country’s sixth Prime Minister. Together, the trio conspired to create a state-owned development investment program. The 2008 financial meltdown had nearly killed the capitalist monetary system, but Malaysia wanted in, and in a big way.
As such, when Low returned to the U.S. in 2009, he was suddenly insanely wealthy and eager to spend his newfound cash. He first showed-up in the gossip rags, though, not the business section. Page Six spotted him on the Manhattan nightclub scene in November 2009. In his very first news story, Low appeared the way he often would thereafter, sweaty-faced and champagne drunk — just another finance bro in Manhattan, down to treat women like objects and objects like people.
The second sentence ever written about him reads like the opening line of a fairy tale about a money launderer. As the New York Post reported: “‘A Jho Low comes around once in a lifetime,’ marveled one industry veteran.” In this instance, the industry wasn’t investment banking, it was New York nightclubs. In that same story, the Post noted, “Low just celebrated his 28th birthday in Las Vegas, a four-day affair that started out last Wednesday at Caesars Palace, where sources said the swimming pool was stocked with bikini-clad party girls and surrounded by caged lions and tigers.”
After that pool party, Low and his birthday entourage kept things pulsing at a nightclub in the casino where Paris Hilton and Usher danced and drank with Low. Jamie Foxx reportedly gave Low a sports car as a birthday present. At the end of the article, a friend of Low’s tried to dispel the mystery but instead only enlarged it: “He’s not an arms dealer,” said his friend. “And he doesn’t want all this publicity.”
Gawker smelled bullshit — and clicks. And so, it published its first story on Low six hours after the Post’s. “Megan Fox was flown out to Vegas to hang out with the birthday boy, who routinely surrounds himself with models,” it reported. The gossip site also said that Low “rents several apartments in the Park Imperial on West 57th Street in Midtown that house him and his staff — including several body guards. Famous neighbors include Daniel Craig and Sean Combs.” In Gawker’s second Low article, Ravi Somaiya correctly guessed that Low was a front for real foreign money. But he guessed incorrectly about who the source was. Or at least he picked the wrong arms dealer.
Probably for that reason, Low tried to regain control of the narrative by giving his first official interview. But not to Forbes, Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal. No, he sat down for a Q&A with the Toronto Star. Most of what he said were banal attempts at shoving the genie back in the bottle. But one question stuck out. He was asked if he was the fall guy for his ultra-wealthy friends. Low responded, “I wouldn’t say I was the fall guy.”
In the meantime, Low grew even more flagrant. In July 2010, he traveled to South Africa to watch the World Cup and was spotted with a group of people that notably included DiCaprio and Paris Hilton. Later that same month, there were printed rumors that Low paid Hilton a million dollars to hang out and party with him in St. Tropez. She denied any rumors they were dating. According to the New York Post, her rep clarified and stated that “they are friends.” (Her friends, though, claimed that Low paid Hilton $100,000 each time he hung out with her.) While in St. Tropez, Low reportedly rented a yacht from billionaire Paul Allen, his mega-boat Tatoosh, a 303-foot stupid fancy yacht, the kind that has a movie theater and a parking spot for your helicopter.
According to the book Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, both Wall Street Journal reporters, Low was by Hilton’s side as she celebrated her 29th birthday. Their entourage partied in Vegas at the Palazzo. To make it memorable, Low gave his longtime crush a Cartier watch, and then, as the book reports, Low “handed her $250,000 in gambling chips and asked her to join him at the baccarat table.”
To give you a sense of what kind of cash Low was regularly dropping: “Between October 2009 and June 2010 — a period of only eight months — Low and his entourage spent $85 million on alcohol, gambling in Vegas, private jets, renting super yachts and to pay Playmates and Hollywood celebrities to hang out with them.”
Smooth. The people of Malaysia were paying a shit ton of money for Low to live his Paris Hilton dream.
* * * * *
If you stole a billion dollars, what would you do with it?
Would you make Dumb and Dumber To? That’s what happened. That’s why that movie exists –– because Jho Low looted his national treasury. It’s not the only reason, but his stolen money definitely paid for it. In fact, that movie was the first time people began to make concrete legal claims that not everything was as it appeared with Low. He’d made the mistake of going full Hollywood, a place where rumors are a form of currency — and so are lawsuits.
He made his movie business turn in 2010, with, of course, Aziz by his side. Neither had any experience in Hollywood. In a rare interview from around that time, Aziz was asked by the Hollywood Reporter about his lack of experience and where the money came from. His co-founder Joey McFarland said, “We do not talk about that.” But Aziz went ahead and answered anyway, “I will say that I have money invested in the company. It shows that I have skin in the game and am committed from a financial point of view. We also have a group of investors, mainly from the Middle East and Asia.”
Aziz had been a banker in London, but after the 2008 financial collapse, he decided to get out of banking. In 2009, his stepfather, the newly-elected Prime Minister Najib, formed 1MDB (1 Malaysian Development Berhard). It was the sovereign wealth fund that Low had conspired with Aziz and his stepfather to create to ostensibly “invest in green energy and tourism to create high-quality jobs for all Malaysians.” But it was mostly a piggy bank for lazy criminals to loot.
To achieve its stated aim, the Malaysian government partnered with a Saudi investment arm called PetroSaudi. Malaysia is an oil producing, conservative Muslim nation so it made perfect sense to partner with Saudi Arabia. Malaysia and PetroSaudi contributed $2.5 billion to the 1MDB fund, ostensibly, for new infrastructure and oil development projects. Instead, $700 million was directed into a shell company called Good Star, a company owned and controlled by Jho Low.
Over the course of the criminal conspiracy, $10 billion would be raised by 1MDB through a series of loans and bonds, and half of that sum would disappear. Evidence discovered by Malaysian investigators shows that $681 million was deposited in personal bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib. He claims it was a gift from Saudi Arabia. There were also the many bribes and payoffs to Malaysian officials necessary to grease the wheels of their conspiracy. And there were the exorbitant fees paid to international investment banks like Goldman Sachs.
Tim Leissner and Roger Ng, two of the bank’s top executives in Asia, helped make the 1MDB scheme pass compliance and beat the regulators’ watchful eye. Both men are currently under criminal investigation. Last week, in fact, the Federal Reserve banned both of them from ever working in the banking industry. Goldman Sachs maintains that the bank is innocent and money laundering crimes were conducted by employees who were “rogue operators.” As the Guardian reported, the DoJ is “investigating whether Goldman Sachs violated U.S. banking law in its handling of $6.5 billion in bond offerings that it carried out for 1MDB. The Wall Street behemoth earned $593 million in fees for the issue.”
Whether Goldman Sachs is innocent or not, it sure didn’t leave much money for green energy projects. In 2010, using his portion of the money illegally embezzled from 1MDB and disbursed through Low’s front company, Good Star, Aziz took a cut of the hundreds of millions and bought a production company. He named it Red Granite, and named himself co-founder and CEO. To make their name on the Hollywood film scene, Low did what he did best: threw an epic party.
At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Red Granite announced that they’d purchased the rights to The Wolf of Wall Street and intended to make it with DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. It was huge news. DiCaprio had finally found someone to pay for his dream project. Mired in development hell, it had theretofore been deemed too risky (with its hard R-rating) and too expensive (with its $100 million budget). To celebrate the occasion, Red Granite flew in Kanye West to perform. (Pharrell opened for him.) Bradley Cooper and DiCaprio danced in the crowd. Later, Jamie Foxx joined Kanye and together they performed “Golddigger.” The song about how some people are dangerously obsessed with money and materialism was a not-at-all subtle comment on this French party scene.
In a contemporaneous interview with Collider, Aziz answered some of the many questions about what an amateur like him was doing in Hollywood producing a movie with one of the greatest living directors and one of the world’s most famous leading men. Aziz called The Wolf of Wall Street a compelling story about “a guy who comes from nothing, gets everything overnight and becomes rich, and in that journey from nothing to everything, he gets sidetracked with all the drugs, the hookers and the alcohol. And once he gets to the top, he gets taken down by the government.”
He had to know he had just told his own story, too. Is that why they wanted to make the film –– to tell their story? Aziz promised, “When you see the film, it’s a good snapshot of what American capitalism is like.”
But that doesn’t address the question. How did they come out of nowhere and get Scorsese and DiCaprio to work with them? To answer that, Aziz pointed to the same power of persuasion that Low would credit: relationships. Aziz explained to Collider, “The reason we were able to get our hands on the film, in the first place, is because we have very close relationships with DiCaprio and his team. When we were talking about various things we wanted to do together, he said, ‘Well, we have a few things cooking, but the main project that we’re really wanting to get off the ground is The Wolf of Wall Street, which is in turn-around at Warner Bros.’ In 2007, they wanted to do the film, and Marty and Leo were on board, but there was some kind of tug-of-war between Paramount and Warner Bros, so they never got the movie made.”
Aziz finished his anecdote with a businessman’s efficiency, “We bought the script and the book rights from Warner Bros and signed Leo on, and then waited for Marty to finish with Hugo and signed him on. Once you get those two guys on board, it’s a fast-moving train, right after. It’s been a great ride, so far.”
All the while, Low went on a hardcore spending spree. Maybe the biggest purchase: Through a shell company, he bought himself a Manhattan penthouse in the Time Warner Center condominiums for $30.55 million. The skyscraping condo’s previous owners were Beyoncé and Jay Z.
In August 2012, cameras began rolling on The Wolf of Wall Street. In November, DiCaprio received a very personal birthday gift from Red Granite, something that had thus far evaded him: an Oscar statuette. It was the one that Marlon Brando won for On the Waterfront. It cost $600,000. For New Year’s Eve, Low and Aziz, Foxx, DiCaprio, and his co-star Jonah Hill, celebrated the New Year in Australia together, then hopped on a private jet and flew to Vegas where they celebrated the New Year a second time. If time is money, and you’re already cheating, why not cheat time, too?
In May 2013, DiCaprio held an art auction for an environmental charity. Low attended and snapped up two pieces to support his friend’s cause. (Earlier in March, Low made his first fine-art purchase, Jean Michel Basquiat’s collage painting Red man for $9.2 million.) Two days after DiCaprio’s art auction, Low decided he needed more art, so he bought another Basquiat, Dust Heads, which cost him $48.8 million, a record at the time for a work by Basquiat. That June, Low grabbed a Rothko that set him back $71.5 million. After that, he was hooked. He picked up work by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Lichtenstein, Warhol and even more Basquiat. He wasn’t buying them because he loved them; he purchased them as investments, which meant the artwork was crated-up and shipped to storage.
As Artsy reported on Low’s time spent tearing through the art world and the eager complicity of the auction houses to casually profit from his crimes, Low was the worst kind of art collector. That is, he was the collector who reduced buying art to a thrill of consumption, no different than eating a potato chip — only he ate famous paintings. That may be why he gave art to his best buddy, DiCaprio. To get some of that good feeling from buying it, and of course, to leverage the art to stoke their relationship.
By this time, Low had moved on from his crush on Paris Hilton. To start off 2014, he was dating Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr. They watched the Super Bowl together in a private box with Aziz and Red Granite co-founder Joey McFarland, who until then had mostly been known as Hilton’s party-planner. While they all watched the game, Katie Holmes stopped in to say “hi,” as did fellow model Kate Upton.
Days later, Low ordered a diamond necklace worth roughly $2 million be created and delivered to Kerr for Valentine’s Day. He used the same jeweler he often used to purchase expensive jewelry for Aziz’s mother, the First Lady of Malaysia. For Kerr’s birthday a short time later, Low put together a 1990s-themed night. To make it feel authentic, he paid Salt-N-Pepa and Vanilla Ice to perform. There was also that one time that Low gave Kerr an enormous see-thru, 100-percent translucent grand piano. The thing was so large contractors had to build new walls around it once it was in place. At the moment, in fact, the U.S. government has no idea how to seize the piano as part of its civil asset forfeiture claim. It’s likely then that Kerr will get to keep it.
The only person to truly see Low for the criminal he was? A fellow conman — the OG Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort, who acted honorably when he crossed paths with Low. As Belfort recalled: “They flew me to Cannes four or five months after they bought the movie and they wanted to announce it in Cannes. It hadn’t even gone into production yet, and they threw a launch party. They must have spent $3 million on a launch party. They flew in Kayne West, and I said to Anne [his girlfriend], ‘This is a fucking scam, anybody who does this has stolen money.’ You wouldn’t spend money you worked for like that.”
Not only did he recognize the scam for what it was, he wouldn’t go along with it. At least, not anymore than he had to. At one point, he turned down half-a-million dollars of Low’s free money.
Why didn’t he take the easy money, like everyone else? Belfort knew better: “I’ve learned my lesson. They tried to offer me money and give me things, I never even spoke to these guys. I was like, ‘I don’t need these fucking people.’ I knew it, it was so obvious.”
* * * * *
Xavier Justo joined PetroSaudi because its co-founder was like a little brother to him. Tarek Obaid, a Saudi national who had the backing of a Saudi prince, and Justo were friends and business associates. They partied together in Geneva in the early aughts. At that time, Justo was the more successful one. According to the Guardian, Justo was “running a large financial services firm, Fininfor, and the owner of a Geneva nightspot named the Platinum Club.” In 2006, Justo loaned Obaid $30,000 and let him use a desk at Fininfor to start PetroSaudi. A co-founder of the company was Prince Turki bin Abdullah, one of the sons of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
In 2009, Obaid found himself on a 300-foot mega-yacht docked off the coast of Monaco. He was onboard for a meeting with Low, Prince Turki and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib. They wanted to discuss business investment opportunities, ways for both of the oil-rich nations to invest their petro-dollars into infrastructure and development. Low and Najib had created a wealth fund for the Malaysian government, which would soon be known as 1MDB. The prime minister was the chairman of its board; Low was an unofficial advisor.
Months later, Najib traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he signed one of his first major deals. The two nations announced a new joint venture worth $2.5 billion, claiming PetroSaudi and 1MDB would “make strategic investments in high-impact projects.” PetroSaudi pumped $1.5 billion into the partnership, while 1MDB added $1 billion of the Malaysian people’s money.
Guess what happened next?
According to the Department of Justice’s 251-page criminal complaint, documenting the money-laundering conspiracy, “Low and his associates caused $700 million of the $1 billion that was to be invested in the Joint Venture to be sent to an account at RBS Coutts Bank in Zurich held in the name of Good Star Limited.” Later, in 2011, “approximately $330 million in additional funds were wired at the direction of 1MDB officials to the Good Star Account.” It’s not easy to send that kind of money around. There are paper trails, and there are compliance officers at international banks, such as Goldman Sachs, who have to sign off on such large transfers of wealth.
But, according to the Justice Department, “1MDB officials represented, including to Deutsche Bank in Malaysia, that Good Star was a wholly-owned subsidiary of PetroSaudi. This was not true. According to banking records, Good Star was a company controlled by Low, and Low was also the Good Star Account’s beneficial owner and sole authorized signatory. At the time, Low was a 29-year-old with no official position with 1MDB or PetroSaudi.”
To get around bank regulators and compliance officers, Low had to rely on a network of business associates. When one of his associates tried to open a joint venture bank account, the proposed plan to distribute funds set-off alarm bells. The DoJ alleges:
“On or about September 22, 2009, the chief investment officer for PetroSaudi (“PETROSAUDI OFFICER”), a U.K. national, contacted BSI in Geneva to discuss the opening of a bank account for the Joint Venture. […] In an email dated September 28, 2009, a banker at BSI in Lugano wrote, ‘I don’t like the transaction at all! In particular the role and involvement of Mr Low Taek Jho ‘looks and feels’ very subspicious [sic] to me.’ The Joint Venture then approached J.P. Morgan (Suisse) about opening an account, without disclosing the same details about the structure of the investment. The Joint Venture opened an account at J.P. Morgan (Suisse) on or about September 30, 2009.”
For the next few years, Low and his associates relied on Saudi oil money and an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund to obscure the structure of the 1MDB-PetroSaudi venture and to confound auditors. At one point, late in the conspiracy, after people were asking pointed questions about missing funds and loan repayments, Najib posted a letter from Saudi Prince Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, that claimed the alleged financial improprieties “should not in any event be construed as an act of corruption since this is against the practice of Islam and I personally do not encourage such practices in any manner whatsoever. This is merely a personal token of appreciation of Low’s good work in promoting the Middle East…” But the letter only mentioned $100 million, not nearly enough to settle the missing billions.
As for Justo’s role in all of this, he’d agreed to come work for Obaid at PetroSaudi back in 2009. And for a couple years, he watched as the Saudi national made millions upon millions for himself and his business partners with their PetroSaudi-1MDB money-laundering scheme. According to Justo, after that, Obaid’s behavior changed. He often erupted in rage. The two men began to fight. And by March 2011, Justo opted to step away from PetroSaudi. It took some negotiating, but PetroSaudi agreed to a severance package with Justo; the company would pay him $6.5 million Swiss francs. But then, days after they’d come to terms, PetroSaudi informed Justo he would only receive $4 million Swiss francs. They’d, however, made one big mistake: Justo still had access to the PetroSaudi servers.
Two years later, in September 2013, Justo decided to get the money that was owed to him. He sent an email to PetroSaudi and informed them that he had gigabytes of evidence of the criminal conspiracy to embezzle billions from 1MDB. An exchange of emails followed. At one point, a rep from PetroSaudi who had negotiated the severance package for Justo warned his former associate, “What troubles me so much is the way in which I see this situation ending — with the destruction of you.”
* * * * *
Clare Rewcastle Brown, the woman who exposed the rot at the center of the 1MDB embezzlement, is the kind of person DiCaprio would typically really like. She’s a retired British journalist who moved back to Malaysia, where she’d spent the early years of her life. When she returned, she found that there was an active campaign of deforestation underway. As a retired journalist, she decided she could call attention to the issue. She started a blog and reported on the causes of corruption and malfeasance — including the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
“It was kind of incremental. I was following a strand that concerned me about what was going on and how our global systems were being managed to the enormous disadvantage of people in the environment and what appeared to be very dodgy practice,” Rewcastle Brown recalled in an interview with Fraud Magazine. “Of course, what I found is every time I uncovered the corruption, I was just getting higher and higher. The reason why nothing was being done about any of these appalling actions was because the corruption went right to the top.”
She became known in Malaysia — and around the world — for her independent diligence. People began to leak info to her. One day, a contact offered her details of a massive criminal conspiracy involving PetroSaudi and 1MDB. She was offered Justo’s stolen cache of email and damning financial data. “A bomb went off in my head,” is how Rewcastle Brown described that moment. It took some wrangling to earn Justo’s trust — and $2 million he demanded for the emails and data (he was going to get his money one way or the other) — but once a promise to pay him was in place (via an Asian publisher), he handed Rewcastle Brown the biggest story of her life, which she titled “HEIST OF THE CENTURY!” and published on February 28, 2015.
Not surprisingly, 1MDB immediately denounced the story, claiming it was fraudulent. The investment venture reported it not only had recouped its initial investment, in full, but it also earned a reported profit of $488 million. None of that was true, though, no matter what their accounting indicated.
Meanwhile, the New York Times had already been asking questions about Low, Aziz and Red Granite. Earlier that month, the Times noted that Aziz had insisted to the paper that “There is no Malaysian money” being used to operate Red Granite or pay for its film production. This, too, was a lie. The Times had a solid sense of who Low was, and what his role was in the world. As the paper put it, “Mr. Low, 33, is a skillful, and more than occasionally flamboyant, iteration of the sort of operative essential to the economy of the global super rich. Just as many of the wealthy use shell companies to keep the movement of money opaque, they also use people like Mr. Low. Whether shopping for new business opportunities or real estate, he has often done so on behalf of investors or, as he likes to say, friends. Whether the money belongs to others or is his own, the lines are frequently blurry, the identity of the buyer elusive.”
Suddenly, everyone knew what DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx seemed to miss when they hung out with Low — he was a massive criminal, a fake and a fraud.
* * * * *
As part of the Department of Justice’s indictment of Low, it filed an asset forfeiture that included the artwork given to DiCaprio as gifts from Red Granite. The actor had to return his works by Picasso, Basquiat and Diane Arbus. He also had to hand over his Oscar that Brando won, a total of more than $13 million in gifts. The money that they’d spent gambling, the money that went for private jets and champagne — that couldn’t be returned.
But what the U.S. government did manage to seize was nearly as epic as the crimes that bought them. Case in point: Low had purchased a mega-yacht with the people of Malaysia’s money. He named it Equanimity. It cost a quarter of a billion dollars. It had a movie theater and a parking spot for a helicopter. It was so massive that when it was seized, the U.S. had to staff it with a full crew just to cruise it back to Malaysia from Bali.
Of course, there was also Miranda Kerr’s multi-million dollar see-thru piano. Peter Tol, the owner of Crystal Music Company who custom-made the extravagant piano, told the New York Times in December, that he feels duped. He said receiving that money that was “destined for the normal people of Malaysia” made him feel terrible. “I don’t like it. It is not my way of life.” Although she may get to keep the piano, Kerr did have to hand the feds a pair of 11-carat diamond earrings and an 11.7-carat heart-shaped diamond, both given to her by Low.
Meanwhile, Low, who was indicted by the Justice Department in absentia, is on the lam. He’s been evading justice by hiding out somewhere in Asia. All rumors and evidence suggest he’s in China, since they have no extradition agreement with Malaysia. His stolen billions still afford him some level of access to power and the means to avoid capture by the U.S.
Plus, as the Malaysian press has been reporting lately, it seems Low is being used as a bargaining chip by China. Najib, now the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, was arrested and is under investigation, pending trial for his part in the criminal enterprise. His assets were also seized. The new prime minister of Malaysia cancelled many of the questionable development deals his predecessor had entered into to hide his crimes, such as the East Coast Rail Link that Chinese state companies contracted to build. The evidence shows it was actually a way for China to “assume $4.7 billion of 1MDB debt.” Basically then, China may be willing to handover Low if Malaysia would enter back into an agreement to build that same multi-billion dollar railroad.
Meanwhile, Low can’t stop committing crimes, as he was recently indicted in a second Department of Justice complaint. This time the celebrity he dragged into it was Prakazrel “Pras” Michel from the Fugees. According to a DoJ criminal complaint filed in November, Pras was part of a criminal conspiracy to wire and distribute millions to lobby on behalf of Low’s ongoing DoJ criminal prosecution. Pras worked with Elliott Broidy, one of President Trump’s top campaign fundraisers, the kind who focused on big donors. Together, they established bank accounts to distribute funds to lobby the Trump administration to kill the DoJ investigation. At the moment, no charges have been filed against Pras. He insists he’s the “innocent owner” of the $37 million seized by the DoJ.
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One day, Jho Low’s story will make a fine movie. Maybe it’ll even be a better film than The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a far crazier story. It has the real Leonardo DiCaprio in it, who will presumably be played by someone else. And therein lies the rub: You can’t separate out DiCaprio from this story, as much as he’d like you to. Whether knowingly or not, DiCaprio casually abetted this massive fraud because he wanted his dream project. And so, this is his story, too.
It seems all the high-end realtors, art auction houses, international investment bankers, Hollywood people and DiCaprio and Paris Hilton saw Low as something of a sucker, a rich man throwing his money away. So, you know, why not take it? But some people had to know — or at least suspect. And those people ignored it, or dismissed that little voice because they wanted something, too. Sure, they didn’t directly screw the people of Malaysia, not the way Low did. They didn’t cheat the Malaysians out of their green infrastructure money. But Low’s greed certainly inspired greed in others. Like a ripple.
Maybe that’s the lesson that DiCaprio has learned. He did seem to be wrestling with what greed means to humanity as he did press junkets for The Wolf of Wall Street. Or as he said at the time, “Greed is a timeless virtue.” Jho Low’s story makes it seem like greed is a virus.
Maybe the cruelest irony, though, is that no rich person really needed what Low gave them. Meanwhile, there were people who clearly did: his people. It goes back to his first interview with the Toronto Star, when Low said, “Ultimately, I am Malaysian. I am one who does not forget my country and I think there is a lot we can do for Malaysia. But when you build the trust of investors, you need to deliver what you promised.”
As the Star wondered then, and as time has shown, Low did become the fall guy. And his highly cinematic collapse shows us all how our world operates in its most expensive shadows.