Friday, February 3, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Banker was ‘fall guy’ in bribery scandal, defense attorney claims

The only Goldman Sachs banker to face trial over a multibillion-dollar scandal offered his own explanation of events during closing arguments.

BROOKLYN (CN) — A former Goldman Sachs banker’s wife took the stand to declare her husband’s innocence at his federal bribery and money laundering trial. His cooperating former boss implicated him in the same crimes. Whose story the jury believes will seal the fate of Roger Ng as his trial, in its eighth week, nears deliberations. 

The 49-year-old Ng Chong Hwa, who goes by Roger, is accused of joining a scheme to steal billions from a sovereign fund in his home country of Malaysia, raking in $35 million for himself in the process. He faces up to 25 years in prison if he’s convicted on all three counts against him. 

At the center of the plan to rob the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB, was Malaysian businessman and “playboy” Jho Low, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree. With his deep pockets and close government ties, Low is said to have arranged bribes and kickbacks to secure three bond deals between 1MDB and Goldman Sachs. 

What’s up for debate is Ng’s involvement and intent. 

Central to the government’s case was testimony from Tim Leissner, Ng’s former boss, who began cooperating the night of his June 2018 arrest and pleaded guilty to his part in the international heist. 

Leissner said he and Ng worked closely on the deals, driven not only by the prospect of multimillion dollar payouts, but the fanfare of getting big business that earned Goldman around $700 million. 

To hear Ng’s attorney tell it, the jury can’t believe a word that came out of his mouth. Leissner admitted to lying to the FBI in early interviews. He said he was married to two women simultaneously — two separate times — and forged divorce documents. And he created a fake email address in his ex-wife’s name then used it to communicate with his girlfriend at the time for more than a year, even going as far as to say that his children were injured in a car accident while discussing family vacation plans. 

“This is lying on a rare level,” defense attorney Marc Agnifilo of the firm Brafman & Associates said during closing arguments on Monday. “It’s not a lie here, it’s not a lie there, it’s a lifetime of lying.” 

On the stand Leissner said that Low, whose full name is Low Taek Jho, cooked up the 1MDB scheme during a meeting at his London home in February 2012, where he took out a sheet of paper and drew a chart showing which government officials in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi would have to be bribed to get the bond deals done. 

But the detail about the chart didn’t come out in FBI interviews until nearly three years after Leissner began cooperating, Agnifilo said. Common sense, he argued, would suggest it’s not even true. Despite Low’s reputation as a partier who rubbed elbows with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, he kept a low profile about his informal role running 1MDB from behind the scenes, emails showed. 

“Jho Low is many things. He is not stupid,” Agnifilo said. 

Low is charged alongside Ng and remains a fugitive. 

Agnifilo pointed out that Leissner could recall minute details from that London meeting, like the whitewashed exterior of Low’s building and the ornate table around which the group sat and plotted. Leissner could not remember two other trips to London around the same time, which records showed didn’t involve Roger.

Leissner’s memory gaps are just another lie, Agnifilo argued. 

“He is taking refuge in ‘I don’t remember,’ because if he doesn’t remember, there’s nothing else you can do,” Agnifilo said. “It’s a brick wall of feigned lack of recollection.” 

Leissner’s testimony is backed up by bank records, emails and other evidence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alixandra Smith said during her closing statements.

“You should scrutinize his testimony closely,” she said, but “Leissner didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.” 

Leissner testified that he and Ng both decided not to tell Goldman about Low’s crucial part in the 1MDB business. 

“They needed to work with him, but they needed Goldman not to know,” Smith said.

It was Ng who first introduced Low to Goldman in late 2009 as a potential private wealth client, but the investment bank rejected him, citing concerns about the true source of Low’s money and his flamboyant public image.

Goldman Sachs paid nearly $3 billion as part of a deferred prosecution agreement related to the 1MDB scandal, while Goldman Sachs Malaysia pleaded guilty to violating anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Smith also pointed to bank records that showed that Ng’s wife, Hwee Bin Lim, opened a bank account around the time the first deal, Project Magnolia, closed in May of 2012. The account used Lim’s mother’s name, but had Lim’s own contact information — which Smith said amounted to impersonating Ng’s mother-in-law. It received four transfers, each of which prosecutors say can be traced back to 1MDB. 

“The entire purpose of setting up this account was to receive criminal proceeds from the scheme,” Smith argued. 

On the stand, Lim offered a different explanation for those transfers. She said she had invested money in China in the mid-1990s through a friend, who later developed stage IV cancer and had to sort out his affairs. 

In 2005, Lim approached Leissner’s then-wife, Judy Chan Leissner, for advice on how to get the money out of China, and ultimately decided to invest it in Chan Leissner’s family businesses in China, Lim testified. 

The business relationship ended after it came to light that Lim knew about one of Tim Leissner’s affairs, and Chan Leissner said it was time to divest Lim’s money, the latter testified. She said repayment was the $35 million that flowed from a bank account the Leissners operated to one that Ng and Lim had control over. 

Agnifilo boosted his case by questioning what Ng could have done to earn such a high figure out of 1MDB, noting that 1MDB officials critical to the scheme received only a few million dollars each. 

“Roger is basically the fall guy for this whole thing,” Agnifilo said. “And Tim Leissner is looking to close the biggest deal of his life.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...