1MDB Case Hangs Over Goldman Sachs as Investigators Dig for Answers
Even as Goldman Sachs is gaining a more prominent profile in the administration of Donald J. Trump, the Wall Street investment firm is undergoing scrutiny in an investigation in a sprawling international money laundering and embezzlement scheme.
Prosecutors have said that billions of dollars that Goldman raised for a Malaysian government investment fund — known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB — were channeled into a web of personal bank accounts and was ultimately used to buy paintings, luxury real estate and investment stakes in movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Investigators are now questioning what Goldman knew about the final use of the money.
Goldman has said it believed the money was being used to buy legitimate assets for the investment fund, which was run in part by the Malaysian government and its embattled prime minister, Najib Razak.
In recent months, lawyers for Goldman have presented information about its dealings with the Malaysian fund to federal prosecutors and the New York Department of Financial Services, according to people briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly about private meetings.
One such meeting took place recently at the Justice Department in Washington. The next meeting is set to take place in Washington in January, the people said.
The 1MDB case has become a signature campaign in the global effort by prosecutors to crack down on kleptocracy and the relative ease with which the superwealthy move their money beyond the oversight of government authorities.
The Justice Department has been particularly interested in the role that American banks and law firms have played in hiding the assets of the superwealthy.
Outside the United States, Singapore’s central bank recently said that it was barring Tim Leissner, the main Goldman banker who worked with the Malaysian investment fund, from the local securities industry.
This week, an employee of a Swiss bank was found guilty in a Singapore court of trying to obstruct the investigation into the case. Two other Swiss bankers involved in the case have already pleaded guilty in Singapore.
And on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the highest ranking officials at Goldman, including the firm’s former president, Gary Cohn, were tracking and approving the transactions with 1MDB.
Mr. Cohn was recently appointed to be President-elect Trump’s top economic adviser and the director of the National Economic Council. Mr. Cohn could not be reached for comment.
Goldman Sachs and the Justice Department declined to comment.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized Goldman Sachs for its ties to the global financial elite. But since his election, Mr. Trump has relied heavily on Goldman executives. In addition to Mr. Cohn’s appointment, Mr. Trump has picked a Goldman veteran and hedge fund manager, Steven T. Mnuchin, to be his Treasury Secretary and made another alumnus of the firm, Stephen K. Bannon, his top strategist.
The 1MDB case hangs over Goldman at a time when its fortunes are otherwise looking up after many hard years.
The firm has faced significant reputational damage after criticism that it profited from the subprime mortgage crisis. The company has also struggled under a raft of new regulations imposed on the financial industry after the mortgage meltdown.
But since Mr. Trump’s election, investors have been betting that Mr. Trump will roll back some of the legislation that has hit Goldman particularly hard.
Mr. Trump’s economic plans could also benefit the firm if interest rates rise and banks are able to charge more for loans. Goldman’s shares have shot up more sharply than the broader market and other bank stocks. Since the election, Goldman’s stock price has risen nearly 32 percent.
On the international front, a British judge ruled in Goldman’s favor in October after a trial on accusations that the firm had pushed Libya’s sovereign wealth fund into costly, improper investments.
In the 1MDB case, there have been no clear signs that the United States government is putting together a criminal case against Goldman or any of its executives.
The recent meetings in Washington between Goldman and the Justice Department may have just been an opportunity for the firm to help the government gather material about other targets in the 1MDB investigation, of which there are many. The Federal Reserve is also said to be reviewing the situation.
This summer, the Justice Department took the first public steps toward seizing $1 billion in assets that it says were moved to the United States after being taken from 1MDB by family and friends of Mr. Najib, the prime minister.
The Malaysian government has said that no money from 1MDB was misappropriated. This fall, the government arrested a critic of the prime minister who publicly disclosed classified information about the 1MDB investigation.
Jack Blum, a lawyer who led corruption investigations for several Senate committees, said that Goldman should have done a thorough investigation of what 1MDB was doing with the money that the bank helped it raise and move around the world, especially given the history of corruption in Malaysia.
“It is a very serious problem when a company is making a hell of a lot of money out of something and everybody in the place says, ‘I don’t know about it,’” Mr. Blum said.
Mr. Blum said that assigning legal blame in situations like the 1MDB case was generally hard because it would be difficult to prove that Goldman executives knew what was going to happen with the money before it happened.
Goldman has looked to distance itself from Mr. Leissner, who was at the center of the bank’s relationship with the Malaysian government.
Mr. Leissner, who is married to the American fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons, left Goldman in January after the firm found a letter that Mr. Leissner wrote, on Goldman letterhead, vouching for Jho Low, a close associate of the Malaysian prime minister and a central target of various government investigations.
The Journal reported on Thursday that Goldman bankers helped Mr. Low transfer some $3 billion to a small Swiss bank, despite several red flags raised by the Swiss bank and lawyers.
The billions of dollars were raised for 1MDB by Goldman in multiple bond transactions that earned the bank outsize fees. The fees were large enough that they needed to get approval from top Goldman executives, including Mr. Cohn, The Journal reported.
In June, the New York State Department of Financial Services wrote a letter to Goldman asking for information about the proceeds of the bond sales “including, but not limited to, whether any ‘red flags’ existed concerning such payments.”
(The New York Times)