Hollywood producer Riza Aziz, stepson of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, pleaded not guilty Friday to five counts of laundering money misappropriated from a Malaysian government investment fund.
Riza, whose Red Granite Pictures produced the Oscar-nominated film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was accused of receiving more than $248 million that was taken from the fund overseen by his stepfather.
The money was transferred from accounts in Switzerland to a Red Granite bank account Riza controlled in amounts from $1.2 million to $133 million, according to the charges against him.
Riza, appearing in a courtroom crowded with reporters, was released on bail of about $240,000.
Each charge can be punished by up to five years in prison, but judges in Malaysia almost always impose concurrent sentences, not consecutive.
Riza joins his mother, stepfather and a long-time friend in facing charges in the disappearance of as much as $4.5 billion from a government investment fund, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which was controlled by Najib.
The scandal rocked Malaysia and led to the ouster of Najib last year, the first time that his party, the United Malays National Organization, had lost power in the country.
The charges against Riza were brought by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which is investigating the disappearance of 1MDB funds now that Najib has been removed from office.
The missing money fuelled the lavish lifestyles of the Najib family and Riza’s long-time friend Jho Low, according to prosecutors and the U.S. Justice Department, which followed the trail of billions of dollars through American banks.
The missing money also helped finance Riza’s movies, the authorities say. The Justice Department accused Red Granite Pictures of using money stolen from the investment fund, known as 1MDB, to produce “Dumb and Dumber To” and “Daddy’s Home” as well as “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Red Granite agreed last year to pay $60 million to settle an assets seizure lawsuit filed by the Justice Department over the three films.
Prosecutors allege that much of the money found its way to Low, Riza’s friend, who used it to travel the globe and live an opulent lifestyle. He is accused of using the money to purchase a $250 million yacht, multimillion-dollar jewellery and paintings for celebrity friends, including the model Miranda Kerr and Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Officials have since seized the yacht, the Equanimity, and Kerr and DiCaprio have handed over the costly gifts they received. Low is on the run and believed to be in China.
1MDB was established and overseen by Najib, who was both prime minister and finance minister.
The authorities say that $731 million in government funds, most of it originating from 1MDB, was deposited into Najib’s bank accounts. When that became public, Najib claimed that most of the money was a gift from a member of the Saudi royal family.
In raids last year on properties owned by Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, police seized as much as $273 million worth of cash, jewellery and luxury handbags.
Najib has been charged with more than 40 criminal counts and is now being tried on some of them. He faces a second trial later this year on the remaining charges.
Rosmah, who is Riza’s mother, was arrested in October and charged with 17 counts of money laundering and tax evasion. She is famous for collecting diamonds, including a pink diamond worth $27.3 million, and scores of Hermès Birkin handbags, which can cost up to $300,000 apiece.
Najib, Rosmah and Low have all maintained their innocence. An attorney for Riza could not be reached Thursday.
Najib was defeated at the polls last year by his one-time mentor Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who led a broad coalition of opposition factions to victory. Mahathir, who turns 94 next week, recently appointed Latheefa Koya, a former human rights activist, to head the anti-corruption commission.
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