Malaysia’s extravagant ex-First Lady lands in graft investigators’ sights

  • Business Premium
  • Tuesday, 26 Jun 2018

KUALA LUMPUR: With her pink diamonds, brightly colored silk robes and vast collection of Hermès Birkin handbags, former Malaysian first lady Rosmah Mansor for years was a lightning rod for anger over suspected corruption. Cartoonists portrayed her in the mold of Imelda Marcos or Grace Mugabe : a big-spending spouse whose husband’s position kept her in luxury goods.

Now a sharper portrait of the fiery 66-year-old Ms. Rosmah is emerging from interviews with investigators and people close to her, one that paints the wife of former Prime Minister Najib Razak as a political force and central actor in the international scandal over the state fund known as 1MDB.

Malaysian investigators newly energized after the May election defeat of Mr. Najib are scrutinizing Ms. Rosmah for a possible criminal indictment alongside her husband, according to people familiar with the investigations. Neither has been charged.

Ms. Rosmah was recently seen with her family at an upscale hotel on Langkawi, a resort island off the coast of Malaysia. Mr. Najib and his wife are barred from leaving the country while investigations proceed.

Ms. Rosmah’s pursuit of the trappings of wealth played a crucial part in pushing Mr. Najib’s administration deeper into graft, ultimately leading to the government’s downfall, said several people who know her.

Ms. Rosmah has accumulated one of the world’s largest collections of pink diamonds, according to a Malaysian businessman who said he helped select some of the gems. One diamond she acquired was worth $27 million, according to the U.S. Justice Department. A man U.S. investigators believe played a critical role in the 1MDB affair—and who has also described helping procure diamonds for Ms. Rosmah—has estimated her collection’s value at $350 million.

Raids on Najib residences in May unearthed $28 million in cash stuffed into suitcases, along with jewelry, watches and 284 luxury handbags, valued at thousands of dollars each, many of them unused in original boxes, according to police. They have yet to tally the value of it all.

1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB, was set up by Mr. Najib in 2009 to promote economic development, but it soon became saddled with billions of dollars in debt. Officials in several countries probing the scandal have identified how much of that money was siphoned away and passed through companies in the Middle East, Seychelles, Caribbean, and the U.S. Some prosecutors have cited Malaysia’s first family as major beneficiaries.

It isn’t known whether investigators suspect Ms. Rosmah was involved directly with any of the complex transactions that over several years steadily drained cash from the 1MDB fund. People who know Ms. Rosmah say she helped orchestrate the alleged involvement of a young Malaysian financier who the U.S. Justice Department says helped set up the 1MDB fund and then oversaw its looting.

The U.S. agency is involved because it believes U.S. assets were among those purchased with graft proceeds. The Justice Department has filed civil lawsuits seeking to seize nearly $2 billion of such assets, including a private jet, luxury homes on both coasts and a film production company headed by Ms. Rosmah’s son.

The suits target assets, not individuals, but they make extensive allegations against figures allegedly connected to the scheme.

The suits say at least $4.5 billion was misappropriated in all, which, if true, would make 1MDB one of the largest-ever financial heists. Last August the Justice Department asked a judge to suspend the civil proceedings so it could focus on a criminal investigation.

A Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission established after Mr. Najib’s election defeat questioned Ms. Rosmah for five hours in early June. Her lawyer said she declared her innocence.

In the past, Ms. Rosmah has described criticism of her spending as politically motivated. “I have bought some jewelry and dresses with my own money. What is wrong with that?” she wrote in a 2013 autobiography.

Ms. Rosmah didn’t respond to requests for an interview, and her lawyer declined to comment for this article.

Mr. Najib, chairman of the board of advisers of the fund at the heart of the matter, has denied any wrongdoing, as has 1MDB itself. While Mr. Najib was in power, the Malaysian attorney general cleared him. New investigations are under way.

Ms. Rosmah, hailing from a middle-class family of schoolteachers, was gifted and determined but felt insecure around affluence, the people who know her say.

Growing up on the grounds of a sultan’s palace, an arrangement that isn’t uncommon in Malaysia, she was exposed to inordinate wealth, which some who know her believe fueled a later taste for extravagance. Friends say she told them she planned to marry into the family of the sultan of Brunei, among the world’s richest.

Instead, after a first marriage to a businessman, she wed Mr. Najib in the late 1980s, when he was chief minister of the plantation-covered state of Pahang and she was working for a property company. Mr. Najib came from a political dynasty that had produced two prime ministers, his father and an uncle. After Pahang and various cabinet posts, he became prime minister in 2009.

Ms. Rosmah grew enamored of the perks of power, said people who know her. She insisted on being addressed as “First Lady of Malaysia,” or FLOM. She began flying everywhere on government jets, including to shop in London, New York and Los Angeles, the people said.

She was imperious when challenged by those who worried her spending could spark a political reckoning in Malaysia, these people said. One of the people who know the couple described how, when they moved into a Kuala Lumpur mansion, some in the family thought it too luxurious for a political couple, but the matter was dropped after Ms. Rosmah became angry over being questioned.

Confidants say Mr. Najib and Ms. Rosmah were devoted to one another, and drew closer when faced with criticism from various political scandals over the years.

The forceful first lady, who took a work space and staff in the prime minister’s office, often prevailed over the less-decisive Mr. Najib, those close to them said. When Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, met Prime Minister Najib in 2009, Mr. Lee asked that Ms. Rosmah also attend, commenting to Singapore media that he’d heard the pair worked as a team.

A Malaysian businessman who says he was dependent on Ms. Rosmah for annual renewals of his government licenses said some of the Hermès Birkin handbags found in Ms. Rosmah’s residences were gifts from him.

Another Malaysian businessman said he used to buy property from a state-owned company before flipping it to another public entity at a higher price, splitting the profits with Ms. Rosmah.

A daughter from Ms. Rosmah’s first marriage, Azrene Ahmad, said in social-media posts in May she had firsthand knowledge of her mother using bribes and side deals, sometimes behind Mr. Najib’s back, to acquire “steel safes full of jewels, precious stones and cash.” Ms. Rosmah also consulted “witch doctors” to “gain dominion” over family members, a post said.

Reached for comment, Ms. Azrene referred to her posts. The allegations were among those about which Ms. Rosmah’s lawyer declined to be interviewed.

Ms. Rosmah’s taste for opulence raised eyebrows among ordinary Malaysians. One website tried to keep track of her appearances with Birkin handbags. As his wife’s public image deteriorated, said a family member, Mr. Najib urged caution about their spending, arguing in 2015 for a modest wedding celebration for the couple’s daughter, but was overruled by Ms. Rosmah.

Ms. Rosmah tried to improve her image, having her staff post a video of her strolling with family members while singing a karaoke version of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes.”

The common touch seemed to elude her, though. At one event to discuss a new sales tax that hurt Malaysians’ pocketbooks, the first lady attempted to empathize, but the effort backfired when she said her hair-dye sessions also had gone up in price—to $400, which is a monthly wage for some Malaysians.

People who know Ms. Rosmah said a desire for international recognition drew her into an alliance nearly 10 years ago with a young Malaysian financier named Jho Low, who the U.S. Justice Department has said was at the heart of the 1MDB scheme.

Mr. Low has denied wrongdoing. Malaysia has a warrant outstanding for his arrest. He is believed to be in China.

Mr. Low’s family owned property near the Najibs’ residence in London, and he had befriended prominent Persian Gulf families while studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. That impressed Ms. Rosmah, who looked up to Middle East royalty, said people who know her.

When Mr. Low persuaded an Abu Dhabi state fund to invest in a Malaysian project for which Ms. Rosmah’s husband could take credit, Ms. Rosman saw potential for further collaboration and became Mr. Low’s champion, these people said. In 2009 Mr. Low helped establish 1MDB, to spend government money to spur development.

Mr. Najib gave Mr. Low wide latitude to handle the fund’s affairs, according to people who worked there.

On Mr. Najib’s first official trip to the U.S. as prime minister, in 2010, Mr. Low arranged for a double-page advertisement in The New York Times, costing more than $100,000, to welcome Ms. Rosmah and recognize her “courageous acts in making a difference” to people around the world, said a person familiar with the arrangement.

Ms. Rosmah wanted to meet Hollywood stars, this person said, and an associate of Mr. Low organized a star-studded party at the St. Regis hotel in New York to welcome her. Mr. Low was consulting with her son from her first marriage, Riza Aziz, on the formation of a film production company, and secured the attendance of Robert De Niro and Jamie Foxx at the party.

Mr. Foxx emceed and danced with Ms. Rosmah, said someone who attended. Mr. De Niro later traveled to Kuala Lumpur following an invitation from Ms. Rosmah, who told local media she wanted the actor to see Malaysia.

Representatives of Messrs. De Niro and Foxx didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The film production company, Red Granite Pictures—which the Justice Department says was funded by 1MDB money—went on to make movies including “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Mr. Riza, who became Red Granite’s chairman, has denied knowing whether any money backing the firm came from 1MDB.

Ms. Rosmah expected Mr. Low to supply her with handbags and diamonds, according to people with knowledge of the relationship and to Justice Department lawsuits.

She used Mr. Najib’s credit cards, funded by 1MDB money, for purchases at Chanel in Hawaii and an Italian jewelry store, according to Malaysian investigative documents. Malaysia’s new attorney general is reviewing those payments as part of its criminal investigation of Ms. Rosmah, said people familiar with the probe.

Mr. Low set up a shell company called Blackrock, unrelated to the U.S. investment firm, to hide 1MDB funds, investigators say. He used the shell company to buy Ms. Rosmah jewels, telling friends “rock” stood for diamonds and “black” for the first lady’s heart. A person familiar with the arrangement said he chartered yachts and private jets for her.

When investigations of events at 1MDB began making progress in 2015, Ms. Rosmah pushed the prime minister’s office to state publicly that her wealth was in line with Mr. Najib’s “legacy family assets,” according to a person familiar with the matter. It did so.

Mr. Najib’s four brothers responded with a statement saying they had been left little money by their father, who was famously frugal as prime minister. Ms. Rosmah reacted angrily, claiming the brothers would bring down the prime minister, said one family member.

Investigations of 1MDB proliferated in the U.S., Singapore, Switzerland and elsewhere, while those inside Malaysia were stymied during the Najib years. Mr. Low privately pointed the finger at Ms. Rosmah. “She is an avid purchaser of jewelry in the millions. Where is the money from?” one associate recalls Mr. Low saying.

Mr. Najib struck associates as focused on obtaining funds for political uses rather than personal spending, and he seemed to them to be only partly in the loop. “The wife had more of a picture than the husband,” said a person regarded by U.S. investigators as having had a central role in the alleged fraud.

Mr. Najib wanted to resign as the investigations intensified in 2016, said people who know the family. One said Ms. Rosmah urged him to stand firm, calling the affair a “test from Allah,” and that she helped lead efforts to block investigations in Malaysia.

Last year, Ms. Rosmah helped hire American lobbyists to urge the Justice Department to drop its probes of 1MDB, said a person familiar with the outreach. This person said Ms. Rosmah dialed into one meeting between the lobbyists and Malaysia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Many Malaysians see their country’s investigation of Ms. Rosmah as a victory for democracy and the rule of law in the Southeast Asian nation, which was dominated by a single political party from independence in 1957 until the May election.

The public is singling out Ms. Rosmah for much of the blame for the international 1MDB scandal. A photo of a laborer toting a shabby shoulder bag with the words “Hermes Birkin” scrawled across it has been shared widely. - WSJ

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