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Tom Wright @TomWrightAsia
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For 3 years, @bradleyhope & I have investigated one of the largest financial heists in history. Its mastermind is a man named Jho Low, a fugitive. In our new book, Billion Dollar Whale, on-sale today, we tell a true-tale of crazy rich Asians. Read on: /1…
Low’s is more than just a heist story--though the theft of $5B, is staggering. It's a tale about how money buys anything in the world: a mega-yacht, friendship with Leo DiCaprio, trips to the @WhiteHouse, attention from @GoldmanSachs. Money+chutzpah make the world go round. /2
And the more money you have, the more you can manipulate it. Born into a moderately wealthy family in Penang, Low got his taste for wealth at the elite UK school Harrow. He talked his way into a nightclub for the first time (ChinaWhite) and played his first game of roulette /3
At @Penn’s @Wharton school, Low plagiarized Wall Street reports for stock pick columns in the university journal and earned a nickname, "Asian Great Gatsby," after he threw himself a birthday party at a Philly club called Shampoo complete with a naked woman covered in sushi. /4
Here's the invite. From a young age, Low loved exclusivity and the aura of being a VIP. At @Penn, he'd also take trips to Atlantic City, where he started playing serious baccarat -- his life-long favorite way to gamble. /5
Low never had a real job. He started hustling deals while still in college, creating his own firm, Wynton Group (as in “win tons” of money), fueled by money from wealthy Middle Eastern and Asian friends. He developed a love of Abu Dhabi, in particular. /6
He cozied up to Yousef al Otaiba, now UAE ambassador to the US (and friend of Jared Kushner), and the young leader of Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Development Company, Khaldoon al Mubarak. He also grew close to Kuwaiti’s wealthiest people. /7
Low also grew closer to the family of @NajibRazak, then Malaysia’s defense minister. Jho and his brother Szen got to know Najib's stepson, Riza, when they all lived in the same compound in London. Proximity to power was key.
Low did one big deal at the time, involving a substantial kickback, but his big moment came in 2009 when he convinced @NajibRazak, now PM of Malaysia, to take over a floundering sovereign wealth fund he created in Terengganu. /9
That fund became 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB. The first deal was with PetroSaudi, a little-known co. part-owned by a member of the Saudi royal family. Low set up a JV deal where 1MDB contributed $1B in cash and PetroSaudi contributed its assets at a very high valuation./10
But when 1MDB sent the money, it actually funneled $700m of it to an account of Low’s Good Star Ltd. (a Seychelles co). Some of the money was distributed to PetroSaudi operatives, but the majority was Low’s and he quickly began living his best life in NYC. /11
Not long after, he met Leo DiCaprio through nightclub promoters in NYC and they were together in Vegas in 2009 when Low convened 20 Playboy Playmates to attend an early birthday party for himself in a hotel suite.
At one point in the evening, Low asked the Playmates to change into bikinis and swim in a small pool on the balcony. But he was oddly shy. “It was weird we were there. He didn’t social with us,” said Starz Ramirez, a make-up artist on-hand that night. /13
Low used the Good Star money to buy a hotel in LA, but he also went on a crazy spending spree. He spent some $85 million on alcohol, gambling, private jets, superyachts and paying celebrities to hang out over just eight months -- more than $10.6M a month. /14
But board members back at 1MDB weren’t happy with the PetroSaudi arrangement. Two of them resigned over the quick speed and unauthorized diversion. But instead of leaving it at that, Low had 1MDB give another $800M to PS, $300M of which was diverted. /15
Local media, particularly the Edge, began pointing out irregularities at the fund and digging into the story, but @NajibRazak’s power was strong and Low was unbothered by the noise even if his biz partners were very nervous about his high-profile spending. /16
In one angry exchange, Low told PetroSaudi partners not to contact Najib after one of them flew to Malaysia. “We all know best how to manage our ends. If anyone starts to think they can ‘openly’ express or deal direct with my end, that is when issues will start,” Low wrote./17
The 1MDB scheme entered a new, bigger phase thanks to Goldman Sachs. Low’s friend, Tim Leissner, a Goldman partner, helped 1MDB raise $6.5 billion of bonds over several years, of which billions were siphoned away into a maze of shell companies ultimately controlled by Low. /18
This wasn’t a low-level Goldman job. Everyone at the highest ranks of the bank knew about the 1MDB work, incl. Gary Cohn and Lloyd Blankfein. Leissner’s star rose because of the profits -- some $600 million in total on work that should have earned them a few million at most. /19
Red flags abounded. 1MDB was cycling through auditors, firing them when they wouldn’t sign off on valuations based on flimsy pieces of paper. A lawyer warned Goldman that 1MDB was asking for bond proceeds to be deposited in a small, private wealth bank. /20
Key to the growing scam was Khadem Al Qubaisi, a top sovereign wealth fund exec in Abu Dhabi who acted as a powerful sheikh’s money man. Al Qubaisi made it possible to divert billions using secret subsidiaries of the fund that he created. /21
Al Qubaisi was a character of his own. A muscled collector of ultra-high end cars, he had a habit of stamping everything he owned with his initials KAQ, including cigars. He also loved the good life and spent much of his time in the south of France, partying. /22
Meanwhile, Low was busy spending. He diverted 1MDB money to produce “The Wolf of Wall Street” and used more to buy artwork, real estate, companies, a hedge fund stake and a Manhattan hotel to be converted into luxury apartments. /23
Even Jordan Belfort, the actual Wolf of Wall Street, smelled a scam. Seeing a multi-million-dollar party for Riza Aziz’s new Red Granite film company in Cannes, he told his partner: “This is a fucking scam --- anybody who does this has stolen money.” /24
Celebrities were less inquisitive. Low was surrounded by A-listers, from Tobey Maguire to DiCaprio, and musicians like Busta Rhymes and Swizz Beatz. /25
Low even began dating Miranda Kerr, the Australian supermodel. They met at a Korean restaurant in NYC. Not long after, he was buying her multi-million dollar pieces of jewelery and threw her a huge 90s party, featuring Vanilla Ice and Mark Morrison in NYC. /26
The scheme started to fray. A PetroSaudi executive had a bitter departure from the firm, taking a huge hard drive of e-mails with him and journalists, including a fiery journalist called Clare Rewcastle Brown, began digging into the affair deeply. /27
Rewcastle-Brown followed social media trails and obtained leaks from Xavier Justo, the former PetroSaudi executive, and others. Her posts on Sarawak Report, her blog, were widely followed in Malaysia and drew condemnation from the government. /28
As things got ugly, Low and others involved sought to reverse the disintegration and stymie investigations. Justo was arrested in Thailand after complaints were made he stole private property from PetroSaudi and Low tried to shift the blame on Khadem al Qubaisi. /29
The @WSJ broke many of the biggest stories -- incl. money to PM, siphoning of funds from Abu Dhabi JV and Low’s involvement in all. In summer of 2016, DOJ brought civil asset forfeiture cases with even more detail on the whole scam, validating work of journalists. /30
Low stopped traveling to the US in late 2015, staying from then on mostly in Asia. He still held celebrity parties, but tried to impose stronger secrecy. “Billion Dollar Whale” has details on those parties, including on his yacht and in Macau in the last two years. /31
As of earlier this year, Low was feeling pretty confident. He was negotiating a settlement with Singapore and hired top Trump friends and lawyers to lobby US govt. to drop its criminal probe in exchange for him giving up the frozen assets. /32
But Malaysians abruptly changed history in May when they voted @NajibRazak out of office, in large part due to the 1MDB scandal. Low is now a fugitive in China, fleeing from two Interpol red alert notices. He was recently charged in absentia with money laundering in Malaysia /33
@NajibRazak was charged with money laundering and other crimes, too. Police found assets worth $274 million in his home alone -- the haul included 12,000 pieces of jewelry, 567 handbags, 423 watches and 234 pairs of brand-name sunglasses. /34
Many other investigations are ongoing, including in the U.S., Switzerland, Singapore and Malaysia. There’s a particular focus in the U.S. on the role of Goldman Sachs in the affair -- the bank says it did nothing wrong. /35
If you enjoyed this little tale, you’ll LOVE “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World,” on sale now at you local bookstore and online:… /36
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