KUALA LUMPUR (Aug 29): The United States is investigating whether fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho (Jho Low) has laundered tens of millions of dollars using two intermediaries and used the funds to pay a US legal team, which includes ex New Jersey governor Chris Christie and a lawyer that represents US President Donald Trump.
The Wall Street Journal reported today, citing sources familiar with the matter, that the US Justice Department is looking at whether Low laundered the money through his associates to facilitate the payments through the international financial system.
It wrote that US authorities are looking into whether a Thai businessman, Phengphian Laogumnerd, and former rap artist Pras Michel, played roles in helping Low make payments.
“For at least a year, these people say, Mr Low has relied on Mr Phengphian to pay accommodation expenses in Hong Kong and Macau, legal and advisory bills and to keep Mr Low’s US$250-million yacht, Equanimity, fully staffed and maintained until it was seized earlier this month.
“Justice Department investigators are examining records and money flows related to a series of companies controlled by Mr Phengphian in Hong Kong and in offshore havens such as the British Virgin Islands to determine whether Mr Low’s money was involved," WSJ wrote, citing its sources.
“The Thai businessman also handled payments of tens of millions of dollars to Mr Low’s lead law firm and advisers, New York-based Kobre & Kim LLP, and British reputation law firm Schillings International LLP, according to the people familiar with the investigation,” it added.
The publication wrote that Low’s access to the global financial system has been sharply curtailed since 2016 by banks wary of handling possibly tainted funds. This has made it difficult for him to pay directly for a range of outlays, from lifestyle expenses to legal and advisory services, it wrote, citing sources.
It also noted there is no indication any of the people who ultimately received payments were aware the funds could have originated from money Low allegedly siphoned off from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). Low has been described in US court filings as a central figure in the alleged embezzlement of US$4.5 billion from 1MDB.
Low's representatives didn't respond to requests for comment for the article. He has consistently denied any wrongdoings.
Besides Christie, who briefly headed Trump’s presidential transition team, the team of lawyers and consultants working for Low, according to WSJ, includes Trump’s longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz; Bobby Burchfield, a lawyer who has served as the Trump Organization’s outside ethics adviser; and Ed Rogers, a Washington lobbyist with close ties to the Republican Party.
Citing a spokesperson for the former governor, WSJ said Christie is representing Low in two asset-forefeiture cases in California. It was referring to the civil lawsuits the Justice Department filed in 2016 and 2017 to recover assets from Low that were allegedly bought using 1MDB funds. The department is now pursuing a criminal case in which Low is a target, the publication wrote.
“There has been no communication by Governor Christie with any other area of government on Mr Low’s behalf,” the spokesman said, adding there has been “no inquiry made to him by the Department of Justice with regard to any other investigation regarding funding or otherwise."
A spokesman for Kasowitz Benson Torres, Kasowitz’s New York law firm, meanwhile, confirmed the firm represents Low in Justice Department matters. “Here, as with all of our clients, our job as attorneys is to represent and vindicate our clients’ interests; and here, as with all of our non-pro-bono clients, we are paid for the legal services we provide,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Burchfield, in an emailed statement, told the publication Low has retained his Atlanta-based firm, King & Spalding, to “advise him on the ongoing investigations,” adding that the law firm “performed appropriate due diligence on sources of payment". Rogers, however, declined to comment.