Swiss prosecutors said Tuesday they have indicted two managers of a Saudi oil exploration company as part of a yearslong international investigation of a scandal linked to a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund that the FBI once described as the “biggest kleptocracy case” ever.
The office of Switzerland’s attorney general said the two PetroSaudi managers were accused of trying to enrich themselves and others by misappropriating at least US$1.8 billion transferred to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund. Swiss officials did not name the pair, citing privacy reasons. (All figures are in U.S. dollars.)
The indictments are the first of their kind in Switzerland, where some financial institutions were ensnared in the far-reaching scandal involving the state-owned investment fund known as 1MDB.
Malaysian investigators allege that more than $4.5 billion was stolen from the fund established in 2009 and laundered by associates of former Prime Minister Najib Razak through layers of bank accounts in the United States and other countries.
Some of the looted money allegedly paid for jewelry, hotels, art and a luxury yacht, and helped finance Hollywood films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
More than $700 million landed in Najib’s bank accounts. He was sent to prison in Malaysia in August to serve a 12-year sentence for graft.
Swiss prosecutors said the PetroSaudi managers were indicted on charges of commercial fraud, aggravated criminal mismanagement and aggravated money laundering. The charges were based on events that took place from 2009 until at least 2015, the prosecutors said.
Over the nearly six-year span, the indicted individuals allegedly arranged for the opening of bank accounts in Switzerland and beyond to mask the origin of misappropriated funds and to impede any possible confiscation of them, according to the attorney general’s office.
PetroSaudi’s media office did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
Swiss prosecutors contend the accused established a sham joint venture — purported to be between the Saudi and Malaysian governments — that would allow them to funnel $700 million to a Swiss company bank account controlled by Low Taek Jho, a fugitive financier who is accused of masterminding the 1MDB scheme.
Low, who was once known for his business and social ties to American celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Leonardo DiCaprio, then allegedly transferred $85 million to the Saudi company managers.
Prosecutors also accused the two of convincing 1MDB’s board to transfer a further $830 million as part of a purported loan. The funds were then misappropriated, the Swiss investigators said.
As part of efforts to depict a joint venture of 1MDB and PetroSaudi as a “government-to-government transaction,” Low allegedly “manipulated” a 2009 meeting that involved Najib and Saudi Prince Turki Bin Abdullah Bin Abulaziz Al Saud on a yacht `Alfa Nero’ near the French Riviera resort town of Cannes, the Swiss attorney general’s office said.
The indicted managers allegedly used misappropriated funds to buy assets as diverse as real estate in Switzerland and London, jewelry, and private equity holdings, and to develop lucrative activities at PetroSaudi that provided “substantial income” for them and funded “a lavish lifestyle,” the attorney general’s office said.
The attorney general’s office said assets worth 192 million Swiss francs (about $215 million) had been seized in Switzerland. The estimated value of the assets did not include the real estate in Switzerland and London, which were also seized.
The case now heads to the federal criminal court in the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona.
Three other criminal cases related to the scandal are pending in Switzerland. They include ones involving Switzerland’s now shuttered BSI bank on suspicion of flawed internal procedures; a former employee of PetroSaudi suspected of industrial espionage; and two former 1MDB officers and two public officials in the United Arab Emirates on suspicion of bribery, money laundering and criminal mismanagement.
Swiss prosecutors noted that their counterparts in other countries had opened and won criminal cases linked to the 1MDB scandal. “It should be noted that the U.S. Department of Justice described the affair as `the largest kleptocracy case to date,”’ the attorney general’s office said.
Late last month, Prakazrel “Pras” Michel, a former founding member of the hip-hop group the Fugees, went on trial in Washington over allegations he funneled money from Malaysian businessman Low through straw donors to Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. U.S. prosecutors allege Low directed more than $20 million to Michel. Defense lawyers have said Michel is innocent.