KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's former attorney-general said Monday that when prosecutors dropped money-laundering charges against “The Wolf of Wall Street” producer and stepson of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak they gave him a “sweetheart deal" that is “terrible for Malaysia."
Former Attorney-General Tommy Thomas disputed statements by his successor and the country's anti-corruption agency that he had agreed to the settlement with Riza Aziz before he quit as the country's top prosecutor following an abrupt change of government early March.
“I would never have sanctioned the deal,” Thomas said in a statement. “It is a sweetheart deal for Riza but terrible for Malaysia."
Riza was discharged last Thursday without being formally acquitted, meaning that prosecutors can revive the charge. Officials said the government will recover $108 million of overseas assets involved in the case — about 43% of the $248 million Riza was accused of having laundered from the 1MDB state investment fund — and Riza is also required to pay an unspecified fine.
Najib set up the 1MDB fund to finance development in Malaysia when he took office in 2009, but it accumulated billions in debts and U.S. investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was stolen from the fund and laundered by Najib’s associates.
Prosecutors last year said $248 million misappropriated from 1MDB was channeled into bank accounts of Riza’s company, Red Granite Pictures Inc., which produced movies including the Martin Scorsese-directed film “The Wolf of Wall Street” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
U.S. investigators say Red Granite used money stolen from 1MDB to finance Hollywood films. Red Granite has paid the U.S. government $60 million to settle claims it benefited from the 1MDB scandal, and the U.S. returned the money to Malaysia.
Thomas said prosecutors had a very strong case with the five money-laundering charges brought against Riza last year. If convicted, he said Riza could have faced up to 15 years for each charge and a fine up to $1.2 billion, five times more than the amount involved.
Thomas also called the $108 million in overseas assets the government will recover in the settlement a “red herring," as Riza was not offering to pay any new money other than assets he bought that were seized by the U.S. Department of Justice and would eventually be returned to Malaysia.
He also questioned why Riza was discharged before the terms of settlement were completed.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said last week that he was worried the move could set a precedent in graft cases in which “thieves will be let off if they return the stolen money.”
Riza was the third person in his family to be charged over the 1MDB graft scandal that helped Mahathir’s alliance oust Najib’s long-ruling government in May 2018 elections. Both Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor face multiple graft charges, and are currently on trial.
Najib, who says his family was targeted by Mahathir’s government as political vengeance, has said Riza was not charged for stealing and that he didn't know the source of the money.
Riza’s discharge came under current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, which came into power in March amid political maneuvering that led to Mahathir’s resignation. Mahathir, a two-time prime minister, quit in February to protest his ally Muhyiddin’s move to pull their party out of the ruling alliance and form a ethnic Malay-majority government with Najib’s party and several others.