As the Witkoff Group and Jynwel Capital were finalising the $660m purchase in 2013 of the Park Lane Hotel, a 47-storey high-rise along Central Park’s southern edge, the mortgage lender had a question.
“We are getting down to the end with the lender,” a principal at Witkoff emailed Low Taek Jho, known as Jho Low, the Malaysian owner of Jynwel Capital. “They are asking for specifics on where the money on your side of the deal is coming from given it is international money. Can you please provide specifics to me so I can forward to the lender?”
“Low Family Capital built from our grandparents, down to the third generation now,” Mr Low replied. “Just all the family.”
A 136-page civil forfeiture complaint filed by the US Department of Justice lays out a far different story about the cash behind Mr Low, placing him at the centre of an alleged money laundering scheme that diverted more than $3bn from the Malaysian government. The civil complaint, which does not accuse anyone of wrongdoing, tracks some mysterious dealings of Mr Low and Jynwel Capital, the private investment fund he runs with his brother Szen, to a fund linked to the ongoing Malaysia scandal.
Prosecutors allege Mr Low, an understated man with extravagant tastes, diverted $3.5bn from 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the state-owned development fund, to spend lavishly on high-end Manhattan condos, Beverly Hills mansions, a $35.4m private jet, and $200m in art. It was also used to pay for million-dollar gambling excursions and to back The Wolf of Wall Street, a Hollywood film produced by Red Granite, the film studio run by his friend, Riza Aziz. Mr Aziz is the stepson of Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister and chairman of the 1MDB advisory board.
The international scandal has rocked Malaysia, stoked investigations in at least six countries, and cast an unflattering light on Goldman Sachs’ business dealings in the region. The complaint, filed last month, provides a vivid illustration of how networks of shell companies, real estate and art can be used to hide stolen assets.
US authorities’ allegations suggest for the first time that the cash behind Jynwel Capital had come in large part from the money taken from 1MDB. Prosecutors allege Mr Low used 1MDB’s coffers to fund at least three assets purchased by Jynwel — investments in music conglomerate EMI Publishing, the five-star, $759-a-night L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, and the Park Lane hotel purchased from the Helmsley family trust.
Known at home for a flashy lifestyle, Mr Low has kept largely out of view since the scandal broke last year. He has refused, through his attorney, interview requests by the Financial Times.
“I am not sure where Mr Low is. I am not sure if he is in Hong Kong or elsewhere,” a woman at Jynwel’s Hong Kong offices told an FT reporter last month.
Mr Low told Euromoney in April 2015 that he was being unfairly maligned. “There are all these guys with their arrows out on me. There seems to be a very, very co-ordinated attempt to say: ‘This young Chinaman, it’s all his fault, he caused the failure of 1MDB and apparently he advised the PM and everything is screwed up now’,” he said.
DoJ’s kleptocracy initiative, which filed the forfeiture complaint, is seeking to freeze the assets and repatriate the proceeds to Malaysia. The complaint’s purpose is to trace the money and establish its source, not to allege any individual had done anything improper.
Champagne with Paris
Mr Low became involved with 1MDB within the first days of its existence, according to the complaint. He had advised a group creating a regional development fund, Terengganu Investment Authority, in early 2009. That same year, 1MDB took over TIA and its executive director assumed the same role at 1MDB, according to the US.
When the board of 1MDB met in September 2009 to ink its first joint venture, Mr Low was there. Then 29 years old, he had no official role at 1MDB but he had become close to Mr Najib, the prime minister. He was brought into the family’s inner circle after he befriended Mr Aziz while they were students at Harrow in London.
Mr Aziz, a movie buff, worked as a junior banker before moving to the US to pursue a career in the film industry.
Mr Low, who is younger than Mr Aziz, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school in 2005. He dabbled in Asian real estate after graduating from university, but before long he began appearing with celebrities on the international party circuit. He popped champagne with Paris Hilton in the French Riviera and befriended singer Alicia Keys, whose photos he posted on his Instagram account.
By 2009, Mr Low was at the 1MDB board meeting when it approved a $1bn joint venture with Petro Saudi, a Saudi Arabian oil-services company. The following year Mr Low set up Jynwel Capital. Within months, the complaint alleges, Mr Low was spending millions in a flurry of deals across the US.
Mr Low allegedly steered $700m of the Petro Saudi fundraising to an account he controlled, which he distributed using layers of shell companies. It was the first of several fundraisings that US authorities allege Mr Low tapped to benefit himself and his associates.
It was during this period that Mr Low met Joey McFarland, a Kentucky native whose business paired celebrities with hotel and corporate appearances. Seeing a useful connection, Mr Low introduced Mr McFarland to Mr Aziz, people familiar with their meeting said. Mr McFarland and Mr Aziz clicked and in 2010 they formed Red Granite Pictures.
Mr Low’s lifestyle and spending became more extravagant. He used the cash to pay a $3m bill with a Hong Kong jeweller and buy a $35.4m Bombardier Jet, according to the complaint. He spent $23.9m on a penthouse apartment with a wraparound terrace in the Park Laurel, a Manhattan high-rise. He later sold it to Mr Aziz for $35.5m.
Mr Low paid $17.5m for an 11,500 sq ft mansion in Beverly Hills, which he also sold to Mr Aziz. That property, featuring a 120-foot lap pool with a golden pyramid on one end, has been partially demolished amid a messy legal dispute.
A second mansion in Beverly Hills was bought for $38.9m, according to the complaint, and he laid out another $30m, which passed through an account in his father’s name, on a condo at Manhattan’s Time Warner Center.
Around the same time, Mr Low began using 1MDB to fund Jynwel, including the $46m purchase of L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills. He also allegedly used 1MDB money to pay for Jynwel’s $106.6m stake in EMI Music Publishing as part of a Sony-led consortium.
Throughout this period Mr Low cut an unassuming figure, according to a person who worked with him. “He was this sweet, fairly timid guy who looked a little out of place,” he says. “He looked like a junior investment banker.”
Still, Mr Low continued to enjoy the high life. “It was his birthday a few years ago and he called me to see I wanted to come to his party in Las Vegas,” the friend says. Mr Low offered to send several private jets to shuttle the friend and his colleagues from different locations to the gambling capital.
After a cancer scare in 2012, Mr Low embarked upon a number of charitable endeavours. He launched the Jynwel Foundation and committed $50m to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which had diagnosed him as having an infection, not cancer. MD Anderson said a majority of the pledged amount has been received.
In 2012, 1MDB needed additional capital and turned to Goldman Sachs to help raise $3.5bn in bonds, with the proceeds earmarked to acquire power companies. But about 40 per cent, or $1.36bn, was allegedly diverted to an account in the name of Aabar-BVI, which was controlled by Mr Low. Its directors were listed as Khadem Abdulla al-Qubaisi, who was a managing director of the International Petroleum Investment Company, an Abu Dhabi investment vehicle, and Mohamed Badawy al-Husseiny, the chief executive of Aabar Investments, a subsidiary of IPIC.
Despite the similar names, US authorities say there is no connection between Aabar and Aabar-BVI. Aabar also says there is no link between the accounts.In July 2012 Mr Low spent seven days gambling at The Venetian, according to the US complaint. During the spree, on July 15, authorities allege, Mr Low withdrew more than $1m in cash and casino chips to gamble with Mr Aziz, Mr McFarland and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, star of The Wolf of Wall Street. Mr Low introduced Mr DiCaprio to Mr Aziz.
The Aabar-BVI account was used to transfer $238m to Red Granite Capital, a BVI-based entity, which authorities allege Mr Aziz used to buy at least $94m worth of property in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and London. About $64m went to Red Granite Pictures and The Wolf of Wall Street. US authorities say Mr Aziz’s business manager provided a letter to his tax accountant stating $94m was a gift from Mr al-Husseiny on behalf of Aabar Investments. A lawyer for Mr al-Husseiny told The New York Times last year that the investment was made with “personal money”.
The film debuted on Christmas Day 2013. At the New York City premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre, Mr Aziz posed for photographers with Mr Low and Mr McFarland. When Mr DiCaprio won the Golden Globe for Best Actor the following spring, he thanked “Joey, Riza, and Jho”. Mr Low had also received a “special thanks” in the film’s closing credits.
At a 2014 meeting with the FT, Mr Aziz and Mr McFarland said they financed the film using tax credits and funding from unnamed “Middle East investors”. They declined to comment on the source of Mr Aziz’s wealth.
“To Red Granite’s knowledge, none of the funding it received four years ago was in any way illegitimate and there is nothing in [the] civil lawsuit claiming that Red Granite knew otherwise. Red Granite continues to co-operate fully with all inquiries and is confident that when the facts come out, it will be clear that Riza Aziz and Red Granite did nothing wrong,” it said in a statement.
The money held by Aabar-BVI allegedly passed through other shell companies before being transferred to accounts belonging to Mr al-Husseiny, Mr al-Qubaisi, and Mr Najib. Mr al-Husseiny and Mr al-Qubaisi were dismissed from IPIC and Aabar last year.
A taste for fine art
In March 2013, 1MDB tapped Goldman again to underwrite a $3bn bond offering for a joint venture with Aabar. US authorities allege more than $1.26bn was routed to an account in the name of Tanore Finance, controlled by Eric Tan, a Malaysian associate of Mr Low’s.
Tanore sent $681m to Mr Najib, according to the complaint. Malaysia’s attorney-general said the money was a gift from the Saudi royal family and that Mr Najib had committed no crime. The Saudi foreign minister has called it a “genuine donation”. About $620m of it has been repaid.
US authorities allege Mr Tan operated as a frontman for Mr Low, setting up an account with auction house Christies in 2013 to buy $137m in masterpieces including works by Van Gogh and Rothko. By 2014, Mr Low sought to expand his collection. “Have abt USD350m and looking for line of 50% so I can buy more,” Mr Low emailed a representative at SNS Fine Arts, seeking help arranging the financing. “Speed is the most important and one with a fairly quick and relaxed KYC [know your customer] process,” he added.
Mr Low took out a $107m loan from Sotheby’s Financial Services using the Van Gogh as collateral. Two months later, he bought a Monet for $57.5m.
Last month, the US moved to seize the Van Gogh. The mansions, hotels, the stake in EMI Music Publishing and future proceeds from The Wolf of Wall Street are also part of the forfeiture action.
Meanwhile, Park Lane’s plans to convert to luxury condos have reportedly been postponed. On May 20, Witkoff sent Mr Low another missive, according to the US. This time Mr Low was told that Jynwel had failed to make the most recent capital call. Mr Low’s fund was in default.
Additional reporting by Matthew Garrahan and Gloria Cheung