Sunday, January 24, 2021

Explainer: Riza Aziz’s money laundering settlement


Former attorney-general (AG) Tommy Thomas was at all times informed and updated about the status of a representation request by Riza Aziz on his five money laundering charges involving some RM250 million, senior anti-graft officers involved in his case have told FMT.

They also confirmed the sequence of events given by AG Idrus Harun leading to the conditional discharge given to the stepson of former prime minister Najib Razak.

“Every correspondence by Riza’s lawyers to Thomas was also copied to us. Everything is in black and white, so to turn around and say he was shocked by the court’s decision last week is baffling,” a source in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) told FMT.

This was in response to Thomas’ recent angry reaction to the Sessions Court’s decision to grant Riza a discharge not amounting to an acquittal (DNNA).

Last year, Riza was charged with five counts of money laundering amounting to US$248 million paid to his Hollywood production company Red Granite Pictures between 2011 and 2012.

Under a settlement announced by the Sessions Court on May 14, Riza would surrender his rights to three properties seized by the US Department of Justice (DoJ), forfeit the money seized from him to the government, and pay a RM500,000 compound under the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act.

Thomas, who resigned as AG just as the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government collapsed in February, has attempted to distance himself from the deal, saying he never agreed to a representation by Riza.

But FMT can confirm based on documents and conversations with those involved in the recovery of the 1MDB assets which Riza was accused of siphoning, that the representation letter from his lawyer was received positively by Thomas.

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The representation letter was first sent to Thomas on Nov 18 last year by Riza’s lawyers Scivetti & Associates, listing the proposed settlements.

Thomas’ note to DPP Sri Ram

Thomas, referring to the letter, had then written to senior deputy public prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram:

“In the light of the statements in paragraphs 5.10, 5.14, 5.15, 5.18 and 5.19, I am prepared to consider this representation. Paragraph 5.20 contains their terms of a proposed settlement. I await your advice,” he wrote.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of the transcript above mistakenly used the word “negotiations”. Upon reviewing the handwritten note, the correct word is “representation”.)

Thomas, however, added he was not convinced that Riza would be a “good prosecution witness against his father”.

Yesterday, Sri Ram indicated that Riza could testify for the prosecution in the 1MDB trial involving the latter’s stepfather Najib Razak.

On Monday, Thomas acknowledged his note to Sri Ram welcoming Riza’s proposals but refused to comment further saying he had no access to the original handwritten note.

Riza’s lawyer followed up on the first request for representation with another letter in January this year.

Explainer: Riza Aziz’s money laundering settlement 1
Tommy Thomas informed senior prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram that he would consider a proposal from Riza Aziz’s lawyer.

In the letter sighted by FMT, Thomas was informed that an MACC prosecutor had told the Sessions Court that Riza’s representation was now in the hands of the AG’s office for consideration.

“This letter clearly shows ongoing representation and negotiation. So how can Thomas claim he does not know much since that first letter of representation?” the source told FMT, adding: “He never put a stop to the ongoing negotiations.”

In February, Thomas’ office received a copy of MACC’s letter to the court, informing it of Riza’s second representation, and requesting for a postponement of the trial.

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A copy of the letter had a handwritten instruction bearing Thomas’ initials, saying: “I would Wan Shaharuddin, the writer of this letter, to brief me.”

Thomas’ successor Idrus had defended the move to allow the representation for Riza, saying he was informed that his predecessor was agreeable to it.

On Monday, Thomas again denied agreeing to the assets recovery deal, saying he would not betray PH.

He even called the settlement “a sweetheart deal for Riza”, saying the US$108 million that the government stands to get back “would in any event be returned by the DoJ to Malaysia”.

PH leaders, as well as former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, followed suit, suggesting the deal was part of attempts by the Perikatan Nasional government to let Najib’s family off the hook. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has strongly denied any involvement in the court’s decision.

‘Asset recovery preferred’

But investigators in MACC familiar with the crime of money laundering said the move to allow representation for Riza was “nothing strange”.

“Our policy since June 2019 as far as the 1MDB scandal is concerned has been about recovering assets,” a senior investigator told FMT.

“It was also in that spirit that we named 41 entities and individuals for civil forfeiture. And then we went for issuing compound notices against those who received these illicit 1MDB funds,” the source said.

In June last year, just three weeks after her appointment as the MACC chief commissioner, Latheefa Koya announced civil forfeiture suits against 41 individuals and entities to recover money allegedly transferred from Najib’s account.

The move was aimed at recovering RM270 million of 1MDB money, adding to some RM1 billion already recovered at that time.

“The focus then and now was to recover as much money as possible. All this was done under the former AG. So why does he now suddenly feign ignorance?” asked a senior MACC officer.

The officer said Thomas was also demeaning the AG’s office in saying he would not betray the former prime minister and PH’s trust.

“Why does he keep referring to himself as PH’s AG? That’s improper and shows political bias.”

FMT has learnt that the process from the time Riza made his first representation last November to the court granting him the discharge last week had gone through intense negotiations involving various parties, including officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

US authorities had previously settled similar cases involving billions of dollars allegedly siphoned from the fund, including from Low Taek Jho, the businessman wanted in several countries and said to be the main culprit in the scandal.

“If such a settlement does not take place, it will be almost impossible for the Malaysian government to recover assets and properties linked to 1MDB,” said one of those who took part in a series of negotiations with the DoJ.


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