1MDB – Malaysia’s Enron and Watergate Combined
A. Bakri Musa
The One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption is business as usual in Malaysia. That is a great tragedy as well as a gross injustice. To Malaysia, 1MDB is “case closed.” That reflects the nation’s system of justice and quality of its institutions, as well as the caliber of those entrusted to run them.
Like ugliness, injustice is obvious to all and transcends boundaries. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) first shone the light at the hideous pox on 1MDB’s face with the filing of the asset forfeiture lawsuit on July 20, 2016. That was only the beginning. Shortly thereafter, Singapore froze the assets of Jho Low, one of the culprits. Together with Switzerland, it also closed the bank involved.
There is now a racketeering suit filed by Husam Musa and Matthias Chang, as private citizens, on August 11, 2016 in New York. That has yet to be certified as a class action suit. With the huge number of potential plaintiffs, it will have no difficulty meeting the numerosity criterion.
1MDB will be Malaysia’s Watergate and Enron combined.
The US Senate Watergate Hearings of the 1970s, triggered by the “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic Party Election Headquarters in Washington, DC, saw many jailed. More than a few prominent lawyers were disbarred, including a former Attorney General as well as the Counsel to the President. It forced President Nixon to resign in disgrace.
The Enron debacle also saw many of its principals imprisoned. The main culprit had a fatal heart attack while being investigated. Enron’s principal advisor, the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen, collapsed. Quite a collateral damage!
The suit by Husam and Chang differs from the earlier DOJ’s in that the defendants are individuals and firms, not assets. They include the usual culprits Jho Low and Reza Aziz, plus his principal accountant Debra Johnson, Goldman Sachs’ bond salesman Timothy Leissner, and film producer Joey McFarland, together with their respective enterprises Metroplex Capital Advisors, Goldman Sachs, and Red Granite Pictures respectively.
Lawsuits are complex and expensive, both to initiate and defend. As for costs, we are looking at high six figures or even millions. That’s US dollars, not devalued ringgit. I do not know about Chang, but I am certain that Husam does not have the kind of resources to engage the high-powered law firms of Louis F Burke PC of New York and Ajamie, LLP of Houston. I do not know their arrangements.
America has the wonderful concept of contingency fees where plaintiffs’ lawyers would get paid only from the awards. Meaning, they have to prevail in order to get paid. That’s laudable public policy as it would ensure that the poor get access to good legal representation.
It would be in the plaintiff lawyers’ interest to ensure that there is a good or at least winnable case, as well as a pot of gold at the end of the trail, or trial. To put it in the colloquial, their defendants must have deep pockets.
Reza Aziz’s and Jho Low’s major assets are now tied up in the DOJ’s forfeiture lawsuit, while Low’s are also frozen in Singapore. Reza Aziz may have a super rich stepfather or donor somewhere. As for the other defendants, Goldman Sachs has the deepest pocket, tantalizing enough target by itself.
While the other defendants and their enterprises may not have deep pockets on cursory examination, they may have generous liability and other insurances. It would be a hollow victory, not to mention a very expensive one, if in the end you could not collect your awards.
In their lawsuit Husam and Chang seek awards of actual damages, restitution or disgorgement of wrongful profits obtained by the defendants, triple damages as provided for by the racketeering Act and other statutes cited, punitive damages, as well as costs and expenses. Tallying those will take a battalion of accountants. Insurances usually do not cover punitive damages or racketeering acts. The threat of both is motivation enough to make defendants settle early.
Husam and Chang have already won a victory of sorts in securing the services of these two top law firms. Those lawyers would not risk their reputation and resources to see their case thrown out of court at the first hearing. They must have done their research and found the case not without merit.
What’s in it for Husam and Chang? Certainly not the money. For even if they were to prevail and the awards be in the mega millions, their share after their lawyers’ cut would not be substantial. They must be doing it to ensure that justice prevails. They could not get that in Malaysia, so they come to America.
The irony should not escape us. The pair could not find justice in an Islamic country but instead have to fly ten thousand miles away in the land of the kafir to seek it. The paradox must have struck Husam hard, being a former PAS Vice-President. That should impress upon him the essential difference between label and content.
Lawyers however, have as much to do with justice as doctors to health. Lawsuits in particular have even less; they are but business decisions to law firms. Victory is settlement in their favor without having to go through an expensive and uncertain trial.
For others, justice would be served if Jho Low and Reza Aziz were forced to disgorge their illicit gains, and then be punished. For Malaysians, that would not be enough. For them justice would come only with full exposure, as with a trial so all the ugly truth could be revealed. Then with that information they could make a better choice on whom to elect as their next leaders to ensure that such corruption and injustice would not recur.
As President Johnson once noted, the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man to fight injustice. We must erase this perversity among Malaysians, leaders and followers alike, that corrupt and illicit gains are but rewards and gifts from generous donors or a benevolent Allah. An open trail would be a great effort in that direction.
The highest reach of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not, wrote Plato. Likewise, the most depraved act of corruption is to view it as otherwise. 1MDB is the most egregious corruption, and we have to expose it to Malaysians as such.
To Husam Musa and Matthias Chang, thank you for your initiative in taking that brave first step. Yours is the finest form of patriotism. The corrupt, the perverts and the traitors would view your act as treason. That is the ultimate compliment! You do not want them to praise you. Reserve that for Najib.