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Six weeks in, prosecutors wrap up 1MDB bribery case against Goldman banker

In a sprawling trial over a multibillion-dollar heist that put a prime minister of Malaysia behind bars, the government built its case against Goldman banker Roger Ng with 10 days of testimony from his ex-boss about lies, deceit and the witness's prodigious love life. 

BROOKLYN (CN) — The government on Thursday afternoon rested its case against a former Goldman Sachs banker embroiled in one of the largest-ever financial scandals, an international scheme that resulted in billions of dollars being siphoned off from a sovereign fund in Malaysia. 

Ng Chong Hwa, who goes by Roger, is charged with conspiring to bribe officials in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi over the course of three bond deals between Goldman and the fund called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad. Prosecutors say the 49-year-old Ng took home $35 million in kickbacks from the transactions, earning the investment bank $700 million in just six months. 

His trial has been a sweeping one, with the government calling more than 20 witnesses over six weeks and showing the jury flow charts of how money moved out of 1MDB and into the pockets of bankers, businessmen and foreign officials. 

Brooklyn federal prosecutors presented hundreds of emails linking Ng to 1MDB officers and Jho Low, a Malaysian financier who is charged in the scheme but remains at large. Low, who is also known as Low Taek Jho, reportedly masterminded the scheme using his close government ties.

Records entered into evidence by the government indicate that it was Ng who first introduced the man to Goldman in 2009 as a private wealth client. Former employees of Goldman's compliance and anti-money laundering teams testified about their wariness of Low, saying his vetting process took longer and raised more red flags than usual, ending with Low’s rejections. Issues included Low’s undisclosed investments; his lavish spending and partying with celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan; and his production of sketchy, unverified reference letters that lacked letterhead and appeared to have been drafted by the same person. 

Ng’s defense attorneys pointed out meanwhile that Ng also gave Goldman a heads up about working with Low.

“Roger Ng advised caution in accepting the claims at face value,” one internal red-flag report shown in court states. “He did not find the individual client’s claims to be credible.”

By far, the witness longest on the stand was Ng’s boss, Tim Leissner, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to money laundering and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He testified over 10 days including cross-examination. 

Ng, as former head of Goldman’s business in Malaysia, and Leissner, in charge of all of South East Asia, worked closely to obtain and carry out the illicit business, Leissner said in court. 

“We were best friends,” he explained. “There wasn’t a day that we didn’t talk.” 

Leissner said Low was running the fund behind the scenes as a close associate of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak since the bank had balked at getting involved with Low, and that they in turn lied to Goldman’s compliance teams repeatedly about Low’s involvement in the 1MDB deals. Najib, who served from 2009 to 2018, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption and money laundering charges. He is out on bail and faces four additional trials related to 1MDB.

According to Leissner and records from the meetings, several other investment bankers were in on Low’s involvement and even attended 1MDB-related meetings with him. Goldman Sachs has paid nearly $3 billion as part of a deferred prosecution agreement related to the 1MDB scandal, with Goldman Sachs Malaysia pleading guilty to violating anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Two days before Leissner’s June 2018 arrest, he sent an email to a business associate, Ng’s then-employer, declaring a news story saying Ng and Low would be arrested was unfair to Ng. 

“I think Roger is being caught in a bad crossfire here,” Leissner wrote.

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On the stand, however, Leissner said that wasn’t true, he was just hiding the 1MDB scheme. “All the people in the scheme maintained secrecy as long as we could.” 

Leissner began cooperating with the government on the night of his arrest. 

Memory and credibility questions during Leissner’s testimony

Leissner described in great detail a February 2012 meeting at Low’s London residence: Guests went through a gate to enter the whitewashed building, were ushered inside by a butler, and sat around an ornate table while talking business and bribes. Low excused himself to change clothing at one point, before the group left for dinner. 

At the meeting, Leissner testified, Low pulled out a piece of paper and drew up a chart naming the government officials and entities and Malaysia and Abu Dhabi who would be “taken care of” under the proposed scheme. The group would later refer to bribes and kickbacks using the codewords “cakes” and “cookies,” Leissner said.  

On cross-examination, however Leissner had trouble recalling details, like what he told FBI agents in early interviews. 

“You lied to the FBI, right?” defense attorney Marc Agnifilo began. 

“I did, yes,” Leissner replied, then clarified that “only at the outset” of government interviews did he blame Ng for money transfers that Leissner himself had in fact directed. 

Repeatedly calling into question Leissner’s credibility, Agnifilo showed the witness transcripts to ask if it was true that he hadn’t told agents about the chart Low drew in London until April of 2021, nearly three years into working with the government. Leissner said he could not remember details from the interviews, and didn’t know if agents were taking notes when they were typing on laptops while interviewing him. 

Other details escaped Leissner, like the reason for a $1 million payment documents showed he received from Ng’s brother-in-law in October 2015, or whether he repaid the money. 

Agnifilo even asked Ng if he believed he had violated his cooperation agreement with the government, which required Leissner to testify in court. 

During hearings outside the jury’s presence, Agnifilo was even more candid. 

“Our theory … is this is a cunning liar. There’s no more delicate way to put this,” Agnifilo said. “And he’s a rare cunning liar — there’s not a lot of other guys like this.”

Leissner’s personal affairs made an appearance in court as well, particularly his tangled intimate life. He admitted that he had been married to two women at the same time — twice — and forged divorce documents more than once to dupe romantic partners into believing he was unmarried. 

Leissner even impersonated his ex-wife Judy Chan Leissner via email to correspond with his then-partner, model and designer Kimora Lee Simmons, about family vacation plans, he said in court. 

Leissner retired from Goldman in January 2016 after the bank discovered he sent a fake letter to the Luxembourg-headquartered Banque Havilland on Low’s behalf, unrelated to 1MDB. “I decided overnight to retire from the firm before they could fire me,” Leissner testified. 

It was a far fall from the glory Leissner said he and Ng were given after closing the 1MDB deals. 

Follow the money

One of the final witnesses went through bank and wire-transfer records that suggested that a bank account opened in Ng’s mother-in-law’s name, around the time the first 1MDB deal closed, was actually used by Ng and his wife, Lim Hwee Bin. For instance, emails sent to the account addressed Lim by name instead of her mother. 

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Records presented by prosecutors showed that Lim spent more than $300,000 on diamond jewelry and another $20,000 on a gold-plated hourglass with money that could be traced back to 1MDB.

Other testimony offered a glimpse into Low’s high-roller life, taking Ng and others along for the ride. Ng joined Low for a November 2010 trip to Las Vegas, before the1MDB  bond deals closed but after Ng had pitched Low as a Goldman client. 

Low stood out — even by Vegas standards — according to Kirk Godby, the head of international marketing at the Venetian, where the group stayed during that jaunt. The showy businessman wore gold suits, and demanded disco balls, dance floors and DJs while he gambled. 

“He was extremely extravagant, traveled with an extensive entourage,” Godby said. “He had requests that were parallel to none.” 

According to Godby, Ng always made an entrance: “When he came out of the limo, it was like, wow.”

To put a number on it, Low’s lifetime buy-in at the casino was almost $87 million. During the 2010 trip — Ng’s only time at the Venetian as a rewards-card carrier — the two played baccarat at the same table. With an average bet of $3,878, Ng lost a total of $22,500. Low got wiped out $1.75 million, with an average bet of $111,469.

Low is well-known for extravagantly spending what is said to be looted 1MDB money, buying luxury real estate in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, and helping to finance Hollywood movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street.” 

The United States has seized from Low paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, a Marlon Brando Oscar, and a $250 million yacht. Supermodel Miranda Kerr surrendered $8 million in jewelry gifted to her by Low. The pair previously dated. 

Defense begins its case

Ng’s attorneys began presenting their case on Thursday, first calling the office manager and legal assistant at Brafman who prepared discovery documents. 

At the end of the day, Agnifilo moved to dismiss the second of the three counts against Ng, accusing him of conspiring to circumvent Goldman’s internal accounting controls, a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The act, Agnifilo argued, aims to prevent bribery by ensuring companies don’t create slush funds or take other steps to hide bribes. “The accounting component is hand-in-glove with the bribery component,” he said.

Here, the shady business happened downstream. “There is nothing about Goldman Sachs’ books and records that is in any way false,” Agnifilo said. “The things we’re so afraid of companies doing to pay bribes didn’t happen.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie reserved judgment.

The defense team is expected to call Lim, Ng’s wife, as a witness. The U.S. government helped to get a visa and safe passage letter for her to travel from Malaysia to the United States, according to previous hearings. Ng’s attorney said his client has been away from his family since his 2019 extradition.

Early in the trial and well ahead of deliberations, one note from a juror asked Judge Brodie to explain the charges against Ng to help focus their attention during testimony that has included painstaking details about international wire transactions and conduct unrelated to Ng — Leissner’s love life, for example.

Another note followed short testimony that, at some point in the 1MDB deals ramp-up, Ng had gotten into a bike accident. It came from a juror who once wrote a blog post about post-traumatic stress disorder related to a bike crash. “I don’t believe the afternoon I spent writing it showed my perception of the facts in the case,” the juror wrote. 

Attorneys in Ng’s case were not concerned by the juror’s note, and Agnifilo suggested they seemed extra cautious, "possibly because of current events involving jurors." (Notably, juror issues in two separate trials have caused a bit of commotion across the river in Manhattan federal court: A juror in Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial did not disclose childhood sexual abuse, and jurors at Governor Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against The New York Times got a push notification during deliberations alerting them that the judge had dismissed the case.) 

Closing arguments are expected next week. 

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