A Malaysian playboy who burned through hundreds of thousands of dollars on the New York City club scene partying with celebrities was funded by his country's corrupt multibillion-dollar sovereign-wealth fund known as 1MBD, the Department of Justice alleges.
Financier Jho Low is charged —alongside two former Goldman Sachs bankers—with crimes related to the wealth fund scandal, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in New York federal court on Thursday. He allegedly diverted as much as $3.5 billion away from the wealth scheme, and is charged with conspiring to launder billions of dollars, conspiring to pay bribes to Malaysian and Abu Dhabi officials, and conspiring to avoid accounting controls.
The Justice Department is seeking to arrest Lho, who is at large and was reportedly last seen in China.
It’s a long detour for the colorful character who used to rip up Manhattan clubs with $160,000 bar tabs and plied Lindsay Lohan with champagne on her 23rd birthday, allegedly masterminded the fraud and will be indicted.
“Everyone wasn’t sure where the money was coming from but no one questioned it.”
— New York nightlife insider
The 1MDB scandal he's alleged to have orchestrated saw a fund—set up to jumpstart economic development in Malaysia—wildly misappropriated. A total of $3.5 billion was misused through 2009 through 2015, including the funding of films like The Wolf of Wall Street and insanely expensive real estate investments including the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan.
Low is accused of “conspiring to launder billions of dollars” embezzled from 1MBD, and of attempting to evade accounting control that underwrote more than $6 billion in bonds issued by the fund. The Department of Justice alleges that Low's close relationships with high-ranking government officials in Malaysia allowed him access to obscene amounts of liquid cash.
“Armed with more liquid cash than possibly any individual in history, Mr. Low infiltrated the very heart of U.S. power,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in an account of one of Low's most wild parties.
In 2012, he hosted what became known as the “wildest party Vegas ever saw” for his 31st birthday: it was attended by Alicia Keys, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Bradley Cooper—and saw Britney Spears burst out of a cake to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Low.
In particular, DiCaprio became deeply embroiled in the scandal when he was forced to return millions of dollars of gifts from Low. DiCaprio became so close with Low that he was an honorary member of the so-called “Pussy Posse,” and they went on an $11 million Las Vegas bender together. Low gifted DiCaprio with Marlon Brando’s $600,000 On the Waterfront Oscar, a $3.28 million Picasso, and a $9.2 million Basquiat original.
A report from the New York Post in 2009 billed Low as “mystery man of the city club scene” who would show up to high-end Manhattan clubs with a fleet of black Cadillac Escalades, go on to spend $60,000 on a routine evening—and on one wild night flew eight waitresses to Malaysia to carry on the party.
“He would hit nightclubs throughout the country and we were excited to know when Jho Low was in town because he would spend a minimum of anywhere from $10k to over $100k,” a New York nightlife insider who partied with Jho Low on multiple occasions told The Daily Beast. “He just wanted to be the man of the room. Everyone treated him like a king. He would buy extravagant presents for people.
“Everyone wasn’t sure where the money was coming from but no one questioned it. He was a nice guy. He treated people with respect but he was the ultimate whale … He just liked to be the man. He liked pretty girls all around and he liked to spend money and be around celebrities. It was his opportunity to be the cool guy at school.”
The hard-partying lifestyle practically subsidized some of New York’s hottest venues.
“Club owners begged journalists not to write about Jho Low,” said a journalist who covered city nightlife. “He was a cash cow during a very competitive time in the nightlife business. The W. 27th St. mega-scene was drying up and a guy like Jho Low could alone finance venues like 1oak, Bungalow 8 and Avenue for a night.
“I honestly don’t believe the venue owners knew he was up to no good. In that era, it wasn’t at all uncommon for sheiks and Russian oligarchs to go to an elite club and buy $20,000 worth of bottles they wouldn’t even touch. They were all spending blood money of some sort.”
Low was also reported to have bought at least six memberships for $300,000 at an upscale New York City club, and was spending $100,000-a-month for an apartment with views of Central Park at the Park Imperial. He allegedly bought $6 million private jet—which is now being sold—and a $250 million luxury yacht called the Equanimity.
Overall, he's reported to have bought $1.7 billion in assets.
The source of his money appeared to be unclear to many of the people who were benefiting from it. His lavish spending was explained away by spokespeople as favors from rich friends, many assumed that he was an heir to a fortune from a rich Asian family, and others simply appeared not to care as long as the champagne kept flowing.