The lawsuits filed Wednesday puts renewed pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak, with court documents making thinly veiled references to him as a beneficiary in the alleged theft of more than $3.5 billion by his stepson, a family friend and various officials.
The assets targeted are believed to have been purchased with money stolen from state investment fund 1MDB and include fine art, high-end US real estate, and a business jet.
Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz also used more than $100 million in suspect funds to finance the 2013 Martin Scorsese financial crime caper “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, according to the Justice Department.
“The Department of Justice will not allow the American financial system to be used as a conduit for corruption,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
The asset seizure would be the largest ever under Washington’s 2010 Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, which targets ill-gotten gains of world leaders that pass through the US.
1MDB, or 1Malaysia Development Berhad, was set up in 2009 by Najib and controlled by him in his concurrent role as finance minister. Its funds were to be invested in economic development projects.
“The Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale,” said FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
Najib has repeatedly dismissed allegations of wrongdoing as political attacks by his domestic opponents, and has moved to thwart Malaysian-led investigations.
His spokesman responded to the US action by stressing Thursday that Malaysian authorities had found no wrongdoing, while pledging to cooperate with any international probes.
Luxury homes, Van Gogh works, and a jet
Prosecutors are seeking to seize film royalties from a production company owned by Najib’s stepson, Red Granite, including those generated by “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Nearly 20 other assets have been targetted, including high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York, and London, artworks by Monet and Van Gogh, and a Bombardier Global 5000 business jet.
The US complaint alleged that high-flying Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, or “Jho Low”, a close Najib family friend who helped create 1MDB, laundered hundreds of millions into the United States to fund such purchases and a lavish lifestyle.
In eight-month span in 2009-2010, Low allegedly transferred $85 million to casinos in Las Vegas.
Najib is not named directly in the filings, but they refer to “Malaysian Official 1,” described as a “high-ranking official” with control over 1MDB.
The filing said “Malaysian Official 1” was the “ultimate beneficiary” of a Malaysian bank account that held tens of millions of allegedly misappropriated funds.
The US filing has re-energised calls in Malaysia for Najib’s removal and prosecution.
“In light of the latest development, the prime minister can no longer hide behind a wall of silence and must instead address the nation on this matter,” said Azmin Ali, a top Malaysian opposition leader.
Switzerland and Singapore already have frozen millions in assets on suspicion of 1MDB-related money-laundering, but no major figures have been brought to justice yet.
Production company Red Granite said it was unaware of any inappropriate funding.
“Red Granite continues to cooperate fully with all inquiries and is confident that when the facts come out, it will be clear that Riza Aziz and Red Granite did nothing wrong,” the company said.
1MDB released a brief statement stressing that it was not a party to the US suit, but offered no comment on the alleged embezzlement of its funds.