From 2009 to 2015, more than $4.5 billion disappeared from a Malaysian government fund and made its way across the globe through shell companies and shady bank accounts, a Department of Justice complaint alleged Friday. Now, the US government is looking to claw some of that money back—and, in a bizarre turn of events—wants Hollywood to fork over millions in assets the DOJ says were purchased with dirty money.
The cash in question originated from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a fund the country's government established to collect money from foreign investors with the ultimate goal of "improving the well-being of the Malaysian people," according to the DOJ. The department alleges top-tier Malaysian officials—including Prime Minister Najib Razak—"misappropriated" the money, stashing it in offshore accounts and using it to buy a laundry list of luxury goods.
A $9.2 million Basquiat painting, a $260 million yacht, a $27 million necklace, and profits from three major motion pictures comprise just a fraction of what federal authorities have vowed to seize in the sprawling corruption case, which the DOJ launched in July 2016 with a civil forfeiture complaint.
Among a host of other places, the investigation led the feds to Red Granite Pictures—a Hollywood production company behind The Wolf of Wall Street, Dumb and Dumber To, and Daddy's Home—which the DOJ accused of laundering stolen money and using it to finance the films. The department is looking to scoop up more than $25 million worth of goods and holdings from Riza Aziz, Red Granite's co-founder and Prime Minister Razak's stepson.
In its 2016 complaint, the DOJ went after the rights to The Wolf of Wall Street; now, the feds are seeking the same for Dumb and Dumber To and Daddy's Home. The DOJ also accused Red Granite of using embezzled money to purchase a Picasso and an Oscar gifted to Leonardo DiCaprio, both of which the actor recently turned over to investigators, according to the New York Times.
"These cases involve billions of dollars that should have been used to help the people of Malaysia, but instead was used by a small number of individuals to fuel their astonishing greed," Acting US Attorney Sandra R. Brown said in a statement. "We simply will not allow the United States to be a place where corrupt individuals can expect to hide assets and lavishly spend money that should be used for the benefit of citizens of other nations."
For their part, the accused Malaysian officials, Red Granite Pictures, and those roped into the investigation have denied any wrongdoing.
"[We are] concerned by the unnecessary and gratuitous naming of certain matters and individuals that are only relevant to domestic political manipulation and interference," Prime Minister Razak's press secretary told the Times.
Red Granite has indicated it's cooperating with federal authorities, and DiCaprio's spokesman said the actor returned all the goods sought by the DOJ before they filed Thursday's complaint.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.