Malaysian tycoon wanted by US in 1MDB scandal fights back

FILE - In this April 23, 2015 file photo, Jho Low, Director of the Jynwel Foundation, poses at the launch of the Global Daily website in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, charged the fugitive Malaysian financier in a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions of dollars from a Malaysian investment fund created to promote economic development projects in that country. The three-count indictment charges Low Taek Jho, who is also known as Jho Low, with misappropriating money from the state-owned fund and using it for bribes and kickbacks to foreign officials, to pay for luxury real estate, art and jewelry in the United States and to fund Hollywood movies, including "The Wolf of Wall Street." (Photo by Stuart Ramson/Invision for the United Nations Foundation/AP Images)

The young Malaysian tycoon wanted by the U.S. for his alleged role in ransacking a state investment fund says he’s innocent, and he’s been fighting back against the allegations while in hiding.

For 36-year-old Taek Jho Low, or Jho Low, it’s a far cry from earlier days of partying with jet-set celebrities like Paris Hilton in Las Vegas and Saint Tropez.

On Thursday the Justice Department charged Low for alleged involvement in a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions of dollars from Malaysia’s 1MDB investment fund. Prosecutors announced a three-count indictment against Low in the first charges arising from the epic corruption scandal at the now-insolvent state investment fund.

A Malaysian-Chinese born on the island of Penang whose grandfather was born in southern China’s Guangdong, Low describes himself on his website Jho-Low.com as a “global investor and philanthropist” with experience in many companies, financings and projects in media, entertainment, retailing, hospitality and real estate. The website mentions his support of the Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation, which funds research into cancer treatment and prevention.

Educated at Harrow, an elite British prep school, and later at Wharton, his family is said to have made its fortune in mining, trading and garment manufacturing.

Low has chafed over criticism of his partying and playboy lifestyle and vehemently objected to the recently published book “Billion Dollar Whale,” which says it tells the inside story of Low and 1MDB.

In a video to promote his family’s company, Jynwel, Low said he early on wanted to be a brain surgeon but gradually grew more interested in business and politics while attending meetings with his father.

He said he “finally landed on business because it was a good combination between the ability to influence change and also the ability to help people.” His company, he said, was interested both in sustainable development and social development.

In its LinkedIn profile, Jynwel Capital describes itself as an international private equity investment and advisory firm with 10-50 employees. It says it cultivates lifelong relationships with “significant investors such as leading sovereign wealth funds, major international investment companies and large family enterprises.”

The company’s own website is “undergoing major reconstruction.”

In a statement dated Nov. 1 that reiterated earlier comments, Low asked that people “keep an open mind” and said evidence will vindicate him.

He said billions in bond offerings detailed in the DOJ indictment were “undertaken openly and lawfully between experienced, well-regulated financial institutions and government entities.”

Low held no formal position at the 1MDB fund, which is insolvent but still exists pending payment of its billions of dollars in debts. The U.S. Justice Department says he had considerable influence over its dealings.

At Harrow he became friends with Riza Aziz, stepson of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who set up 1MDB to support the country’s economic development. Najib was ousted in an election upset in May after former leader Mahathir Mohamad, outraged by the scandal, came out of political retirement. The 93-year-old Mahathir is now prime minister and reopened the probe into the 1MDB fund, and Najib is facing criminal charges.

While his lawyers fight to have the charges against him dismissed, Low’s whereabouts are unknown.

In earlier statements, Low said he would not “submit to any jurisdiction” where he could not get a fair trial, especially Malaysia.

Mahathir has urged Low to return to Malaysia to sort out the legal issues. His government has put his luxury yacht, the Equanimity, on auction to help recoup some of the huge debts created by 1MDB.

“They would like to get Jho Low to put him on trial but he is nowhere to be seen,” Mahathir said Friday, referring to U.S. authorities. “We would like to get Jho Low; we have several charges against him.”

“Before, he was a man of the world, flitting around the world in jet planes and the Equanimity and living a great life, but now he has to hide like a mouse,” he said.

Justice Department documents cite multiple instances in which Low allegedly siphoned funds from bond offerings for kickbacks and bribes to Malaysian officials. They say many of the transactions were done through shell companies, which often are used to obscure origins and destinations of illicit activities.

But the documents emphasize that the charges are allegations and that Low and a former banker arrested this week in connection with the case, Ng Chong Hwa, “are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.”

Singapore has fined eight banks for failing to carry out proper anti-money laundering measures in relation to 1MDB and ordered prison sentences for several bankers. It has seized 240 million Singapore dollars ($180 million) of property and cash and says about half of that belonged to Low and his immediate family.

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