Fugitive Malaysian financier in multibillion-dollar scandal building army of foreign agents in the US

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(March 21): A fugitive Malaysian financier at the heart of the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal is quietly building up an army of foreign agents and firms amid mounting investigations into his financial dealings.

Low Taek Jho, who often goes by Jho Low, gained notoriety as a suspect of investigations into billions of dollars that disappeared from a Malaysian state-owned investment fund called 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

As investigations continue to mount across the globe, Low and his co-conspirators face criminal charges in the US for conspiring to launder billions of dollars embezzled from the wealth fund Low had helped create to launder money for personal enrichment and bribery.

The fund was intended to drive economic development in the country and create “opportunities for Malaysians from diverse backgrounds to move up the value chain.”

But Low, along with his co-conspirators, allegedly siphoned the cash and burned through millions of dollars on the New York City club scene partying with celebrities and lavishing them with opulent gifts.

From six-figure bar tabs and losing US$2 million in 10 minutes gambling during Paris Hilton’s Las Vegas birthday party, to spending millions more on now-confiscated diamond jewelry trying to woo Australian model Miranda Kerr after her split from actor Orlando Bloom and fronting extravagant sums for parties, such as one where Britney Spears burst out of a cake to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ Low hardly kept his riches under wraps.

Money investigators eventually traced back to 1MDB flowed freely, even implicating some A-list Hollywood celebrities. Notably, Low financed “The Wolf of Wall Street”, a movie about corrupt broker Jordan Belfort’s multimillion-dollar Wall Street fraud which was uncovered by the FBI. But financial dealings beyond the silver screen grew even more entangled, forcing Leonardo DiCaprio to turn over millions of dollars worth of gifts from Low, including a US$3.28 million Picasso and Marlon Brando’s first Oscar for “On the Waterfront.”

As most of those spoils were seized by authorities and Low was left on the run from the agents of multiple countries, the elusive financier enlisted a team of lawyers and communications specialists to deal with the multibillion-dollar scandal’s fallout.

Low’s million-dollar foreign influence team

Records identified by the Center for Responsive Politics using the Foreign Lobby Watch tool reveal that Low’s operation has continued to add new firms and individuals, racking up at least a seven-figure bill for a conglomeration of reputation management and communications services aimed at currying influence in the US.

The two crisis-management firms added earlier this month hired to provide digital reputation management and public relations services for his “various ongoing legal proceedings,” a newly revealed expansion of the foreign lobbying and influence operation that filed its first FARA reports with DOJ just one day before federal prosecutors at the agency filed charges against Low.

These previously unreported contracts with firms identified by the Center for Responsive Politics bring the cost of campaigns to unsully Low’s image to more than US$1.38 million since mid-2018.

Helmed by two high-powered law firms, Kobre and Kim and Schillings International, the cost of Low’s legal defense and influence operation may be much higher factoring in legal fees exempt from FARA reporting requirements.

The operation epitomizes a new breed of litigation communications operatives who have played a behind-the-scenes role in helping burnish the image of wealthy individuals and corporations entangled in international legal battles — for a price.

Federal law carves out an exemption to FARA disclosure requirements for lawyers and legal service providers acting within the scope of legal representation. While this exemption does not apply to a lawyer or legal service provider’s other activities that fall under the purview of FARA, lawyers find themselves in dual roles.

Unknown funding fronting the bill

The identity of who is bankrolling the operation remains as much of a mystery as Low’s location.

Both firms’ registration statements include claims that have “received funds on behalf of the foreign principal” from a third party, but neither has disclosed the identity of that financier.

The new FARA disclosures come on the heels of allegations that a vice chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign and inaugural committee was part of a scheme to launder millions of dollars of Low’s money through shell companies and bank accounts to finance an attempt at influencing ongoing DOJ investigation against him.

DOJ also reportedly began investigating if Low laundered tens of millions of dollars to pay a US legal team that included former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, longtime Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz and the Trump Organization’s ethics adviser Bobby Burchfield.

Levick Strategic Communications, a firm recently hired by Kobre and Kim, raked in a US$50,000 advance retainer under its previously unreported on contract to provide “strategic communications advice, counsel and execution in contemplation of ongoing, high profile investigations with heavy press scrutiny” and “related to various ongoing legal proceedings” from February 21 through March 6, according to DOJ records.

Levick previously faced scrutiny for helping burnish the then-incumbent Nigerian People’s Democratic Party (PDP)’s image battered by its response to the kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Now Nigeria’s main opposition group, PDP recently signed high-profile lobbyist and former Trump Victory chair Brian Ballard’s firm for its foreign influence operations.

Levick’s website boasts of the CEO’s campaigns for clients like “Guantanamo Bay; the Catholic Church; the Wall Street crisis; [and] the Gulf oil spill.” Channeling Jaws, the CEO’s firm profile prominently features the slogan, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Low may have taken that slogan a little too literally with his purchase of a US$250 million luxury superyacht called the Equanimity. Outfitted with a movie theatre and helicopter pad, the yacht was eventually seized by authorities and allegedly auctioned off for a nine-digit sum.

The registration materials submitted to DOJ for Levick and another newly added firm, Reevemark LLC, note that Low “identifies himself as a global philanthropist, investor and entrepreneur.”

Reevemark is set to receive US$175,000 for its work promoting Low from Feb 15 through the end of March followed by monthly payments of US$125,000, according to its initial contract. Reevemark is a New York-based strategic communications shop started last year by former Sard Verbinnen partners, and Low is their first foreign principal reported in FARA disclosures.  

The FARA filings came within weeks of news DOJ is reportedly investigating whether US$100,000 donated to the Trump re-election campaign’s joint fundraising committee, Trump Victory, may have been funneled from Low in violation of campaign finance laws barring foreign money in US elections.

Other FARA records dating back to June 2018 — but stamped Oct 31, 2018, just one day before Low was indicted — set out other lucrative deals like a US$50,000 per month fee paid by Kobre and Kim to PRCG Haggerty LLC for the first three months of service. The firms adjusted the fee structure in August, bumping up PRCG’s monthly retainer to US$100,000 per month, citing the workload. On top of that six-figure sum, they contracted to pay an additional US$20,000 per month for “Australian partners” to provide “overnight Asia/Pacific coverage and strategy and outreach to Asian and Australian media” through a PRCG affiliate.

Kobre and Kim agreed to pay US$55,000 per month to Marathon Strategies — a firm founded by longtime Democratic campaign operative Phil Singer — for media relations and digital services starting in August 2018. A provision in the contract also left open the potential for additional spending on things like video production, with videos priced at US$3,000 to US$7,000 a pop.

That month, Kobre and Kim inked a US$70,000 per month contract with digital reputation management firm FiveBlocks. The following month, in September 2018, Kobre and Kim added a US$13,315 contract with a London-based public relations firm called PHA Group.

How those payments actually played out won’t be disclosed until Kobre and Kim file supplemental statements covering the six-month period starting in October when the contracts took effect.

A website made by Low’s representation appeared online in September 2018 where Low purports his innocence, criticizes media reports of his legal troubles, and claims he “will be vindicated once all the relevant evidence has been presented in a fair and legitimate court of law.”

Others in scandal pay for their own paths to influence

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak enlisted hard-hitting firms in the US, including a firm run by former US Attorney General John Ashcroft and another newer firm known for close ties to the Trump administration.

Razak’s foreign agent on record at the firm is Mark Corallo, the former spokesperson for President Trump’s private legal team in the Russia investigation. Although Ashcroft Law Firm submitted FARA disclosures detailing activities for the former Malaysian prime minister through the six-month period spanning the second half of 2018, the firm has yet to report receiving any funding, citing an “interruption in work and any payment requirements.”

Another firm promoting Razak’s interests is the 45 Group, a firm started by former Trump campaign aide Healy Baumgardner-Nardone. The firm was hired to help Malaysia with “arranging meetings between US government officials and Malaysian officials and advocating on strengthening relations between the US and the Republic of Malaysia,” but reported being paid six-figures by another firm that is registered in the British Virgin Islands but lists an address in Malaysia.

Jho Low remains at large, and the current Malaysian Prime Minister has claimed Low is being harbored by the Chinese government. Despite investigations by government officials hailing from multiple countries, Low has yet to be found.

Neither Kobre and Kim nor Schillings International responded to requests for comment before publication.