Goldman Made Millions in Malaysia. Malaysia Hopes to Claw Some Back.

Posted June 14, 2018 4:38 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 4:40 p.m. EDT

HONG KONG — Goldman Sachs once made a lot of money in Malaysia. Now Malaysia wants some of it back.

The Malaysian government intends to seek restitution from Goldman Sachs, its new finance minister said this week, as it moves to resolve a huge scandal that led to the disappearance of billions of dollars and helped put the country deeply in debt.

That could add significantly to the venerable Wall Street bank’s problems in Malaysia, where it has become ensnared in the scandal. It already faces investigations in the United States and elsewhere related to its activity in the country, where it was once a dominant financial force.

“We intend to seek some claims from them,” Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s new finance minister, said in an interview this week in Kuala Lumpur.

The finance minister did not give any details about what kind of claims his government would seek, but he said authorities were likely to move cautiously and that the process “will take time.” But he added that Malaysia’s new leaders had reopened communication lines with American authorities that the country’s previous leaders had shut off.

“The Department of Justice has been superb,” Lim said. “I think they have been really helpful.”

Malaysian voters last month ousted the prime minister at the heart of the scandal, Najib Razak. The country’s new leader, Mahathir Mohamad, has moved forcefully to investigate the apparent theft of billions of dollars from a state investment fund under Najib’s watch. Investigators in the United States contend that $4.5 billion was diverted from the fund into the bank accounts of Najib, his family and his friends.

Those investigators have called it a “massive, brazen and blatant” scheme. Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

Goldman Sachs helped the investment fund — called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB — raise $6.5 billion in 2012 and 2013 through bond sales. Investigators say $2.5 billion of that money was then diverted to senior officials for their personal gain.

The bank, which pocketed $600 million in fees for its work selling the bonds, said it was unaware of any wrongdoing.

“We helped raise money for a sovereign wealth fund that was designed to invest in Malaysia,” said Edward Naylor, a spokesman for Goldman Sachs.

“We had no visibility into whether some of those funds may have been subsequently diverted to other purposes,” he said.

Goldman Sachs was a major player in Malaysia only a few years ago. At its peak in 2016, Goldman had two-thirds of the market in Malaysia for foreign bond offerings, according to data from Dealogic.

Now, Goldman Sachs is largely staying away from any business that requires being in the public eye there.

The 1MDB scandal made the difference. Najib created the sovereign wealth fund in 2009 and billed it as an economic development plan to benefit ordinary Malaysians.

But Najib personally received $731 million stolen from the fund, prosecutors in the United States have alleged. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, received $30 million worth of jewelry bought with money that came from 1MDB, including a 22-carat pink diamond necklace that was worth $27.3 million, according to the prosecutors.

Government filings say that some $200 million of the stolen funds was spent on paintings by artists like Picasso, Monet, van Gogh and Warhol. Another $250 million was used to buy a custom-built yacht with a private movie theater, a helicopter pad and enough space for dozens of crew members.

Tens of millions of dollars went to finance Hollywood films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” through a production studio owned by Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson.

In his acceptance speech after winning a Golden Globe for his leading role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo DiCaprio personally thanked Aziz and Jho Low, a highflying financier whom Malaysian authorities are now seeking to arrest and who helped Najib set up 1MDB. The scandal over the fund gripped Malaysia and ultimately led to the election victory of an opposition bloc led by the 92-year-old Mahathir on May 9, an earthshaking event in a country that had been governed by a single coalition for decades.

Days after the election, Najib and his wife were barred from leaving Malaysia and their residences were raided. In scenes that played out on television sets across the country, authorities hauled out hundreds of boxes that included luxury handbags, watches and jewelry. They also found $28.6 million in cash.

In the United States, prosecutors are seeking to collect new evidence that could be used to build a criminal case, according to two people with direct knowledge of the case who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Malaysian officials may decide to share information that they uncover as they pursue new leads in their investigation.

As part of the civil case in the United States, prosecutors have seized assets they allege are connected to the scheme. If they gather enough information to pursue a criminal case, the government could charge individuals and institutions.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice declined to comment. Speaking about Goldman Sachs and the broader U.S. financial system, Lim said that “just because of one Goldman Sachs does not mean that the entire financial system of the United States is compromised.”

He added: “One bad egg does not mean the whole basket is rotten.”