Courtroom sketch of Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio testifying.
Courtroom sketch of Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio testifying. Image Credit: Reuters

As US authorities tell it, the theft of $4.5 billion (Dh16.53 billion) from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund by a coterie of kleptocrats in Kuala Lumpur allowed the main embezzler, a wild-partying, celebrity-obsessed financier named Low Taek Jho, to buy his way into the Hollywood movie business. With part of his ill-gotten fortune, Low quietly helped create a production company that put up $100 million (Dh367 million) in 2012 to make ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, the FBI said. The Oscar-nominated film was a subject of testimony Monday in a criminal trial in federal court in Washington, where a prosecutor, midway through the morning, summoned her next witness.

“Your honour, the government would like to call Leonardo DiCaprio, please.”

In the crowded gallery, all heads swivelled in unison toward the public doors of courtroom 28, and after a minute’s delay — long enough for jurors to stand and stretch — here came the leading man finally, with slicked-back, dark-brown hair and a wiry goatee, clad in a solemn grey suit and stiff black shoes that looked to be just out of a box.

Shuffling papers at a lectern, prosecutor Nicole R Lockhart waited as the lanky DiCaprio, the main star of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and a co-producer of the film, settled himself on the witness box and swore to tell the truth.

“At the risk of asking a stupid question,” she began, “what do you do for a living?”

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio Image Credit: Reuters

“I am an actor,” he said in a soft, measured voice, before testifying for over an hour about his long-ago business dealings and nightlife adventures with Low, now a fugitive from justice. He mentioned yachts and private jets and spoke of party excursions to Australia and South America, but mostly he discussed ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and how it came to be financed by the rotund, flamboyant, Ivy League-educated money man, for whom a five-figure bar tab was just another evening on the town.

“I understood him to be a huge businessman with many different connections in Abu Dhabi and Malaysia,” DiCaprio said of Low, adding, “He would have a multitude of lavish parties, many people from all over the world: actors, celebrities, musicians.”

Until the 48-year-old Tinseltown icon - who is not accused of any wrongdoing - made his guest appearance Monday in US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s courtroom, the biggest star in criminal case No. 1:19-cr-00148 had been the defendant, Grammy Award-winning rap artist Prakazrel ‘Pras’ Michl, a founding member of the short-lived but influential 1990s hip-hop trio the Fugees.

Unlike DiCaprio’s involvement with Low, Michl’s association with the missing financier was felonious, according to authorities. After the Fugees split up in 1997 and Michl’s solo career waned, Lockhart said, he reinvented himself as a businessman in the late 2000s by joining with Low. According to authorities, the Malaysian financier had access to billions of dollars looted from his country’s sovereign wealth fund, known as 1MDB, and was creating a network of relationships with swanky and powerful people in the United States. He did this by hosting bacchanalian parties, often in Las Vegas, and bestowing absurdly lavish gifts on his growing stable of celebrity acquaintances.

Michl, on trial since last week, has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering, campaign-finance violations, acting as an unregistered agent for foreign nationals, witness tampering and lying to banks. Low, now 41, is an absent co-defendant in the case.

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US political links

In one scheme, Lockhart said, Michl was paid handsomely by Low for illegally using straw donors to funnel $2 million (Dh7.34 million) into President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, without the campaign knowing the actual source of the funds. In another plot, she said, Michl, Low and others illegally lobbied Trump administration officials to quash a Justice Department investigation of Low related to the 1MDB embezzlement.

Lockhart called DiCaprio to the witness box to flesh out some of Low’s other financial ventures, including his foray into the movie business. Having sat through 90 minutes of earlier testimony from an FBI expert in cell phone data analysis, the jury seemed to suddenly perk up.

After acquiring the film rights to the 2007 memoir ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, by confessed stock swindler Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio became frustrated when studios declined to greenlight the kind of movie he and director Martin Scorsese wanted to make, according to trade publications. Then, in 2010, he met Low at a party in Las Vegas, he told the jury.

He said he heard that Low, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and son of a rich Malaysian father, “was a sort of prodigy in the business world and was incredibly successful.” Eventually they struck a deal in which a company run by two of Low’s friends, but silently funded by Low, would finance ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. The firm, Red Granite Productions (now Red Granite Pictures), agreed to a $100 million (Dh367 million) budget.

DiCaprio said “my lawyer and my team” vetted Low. He said his people reported that “the background check was fine and he was a legitimate business person”. The two became not only financial associates but social pals, travelling on Low’s jet to parties all over the world. He told the jury that they once flew to Australia to celebrate New Year’s Eve - then immediately flew to Las Vegas, hoping to greet the same new year a second time.

“I do remember him saying that was an objective of his,” DiCaprio said of his former friend. He said he distanced himself from Low in 2015 after news stories began to appear about the 1MDB scandal and Low’s alleged role in it. Low had helped establish the fund in the late 2000s, when he was a close associate of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was eventually ousted from office and sentenced to prison in connection with the embezzlement.

In their 2018 book about Low, ‘Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World’, journalists Tom Write and Bradley Hope wrote that in an eight-month span starting in October 2009, “Low and his entourage spent $85 million (Dh312.17 million)” on gambling, aeroplane and superyacht rentals “and to pay for Hollywood celebrities to hang out with him”.

Expensive tastes

They reported vivid details of Low’s epicly extravagant 31st birthday bash — which they said DiCaprio attended — in Las Vegas in 2012. It was held in a mammoth, hanger-like building erected for the occasion, not far from the Palazzo hotel and casino, where Low was staying in a $25,000 (Dh91,814.11)-a-night suite.

The party venue “was ample enough to house a Ferris wheel, carousel, circus trampoline, cigar lounge, and plush white couches scattered throughout,” the book says. “One half was circus-themed, with the other half transformed into an ultrachic nightclub. With the lighting, and devices that sent explosions into the air periodically, it felt like a major concert, not a private event.”

Pras Michl was among the 300 or so revellers, nearly all of them celebrities - from Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian - or global business heavyweights with whom Low had cultivated financial relationships.

TAB 191110  Martin Scorsese-1573394049159
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 05: Martin Scorsese attends the SFFILM premiere of "The Irishman" at the Castro Theatre on November 5, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Kimberly White/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY == Image Credit: AFP

Ludacris, Busta Rhymes and Pharrell Williams performed, as did Britney Spears, who burst from a giant cake and sang ‘Happy Birthday’. “Cirque du Soleil-type entertainers walked among them on stilts, while acrobats in lingerie swung on hoops overhead” and a troupe “of little people dressed as Oompa-Loompas” paraded through the crowd, the authors wrote. “In a cordoned-off VIP area, Low held court with DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese,” who were then weeks into filming ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.

Asked on the witness box about the 2012 party, DiCaprio paused to think. “My memory doesn’t serve me about the year or location,” he replied, adding, “I can’t say for sure,” but “quite possibly” he was there. Low threw so many parties, DiCaprio testified, that it was hard to remember.

A federal grand jury in New York indicted Low in October 2018, accusing him of several felonies related to the 1MDB embezzlement. Seven months later, he and Michl were indicted in Washington on the charges for which Michl is now on trial. Authorities have said they believe Low is in China. Court records do not list any attorney currently representing the fugitive financier in either of the criminal cases.

After he disappeared, lawyers handling a civil forfeiture case on his behalf reached a colony with federal officials in 2019 in which Low gave up more than $700 million (Dh2,570.8 million) in assets, including “high-end real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London; a luxury boutique hotel in Beverly Hills; and tens of millions of dollars in business investments,” the Justice Department said.

Red Granite, the production company Low quietly funded, turned over $60 million (Dh220.35 million) to US authorities to resolve a government lawsuit. And DiCaprio surrendered gifts he’d received from Low: $12 million (Dh44.07 million) in artworks by Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a $750,000 (Dh2,754,423.33) Diane Arbus photograph, and Marlon Brando’s 1955 best-actor Oscar for ‘On the Waterfront’.

As for ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, it took in about $400 million (Dh1,469.03 million) worldwide - roughly four times what it cost to produce - and garnered Academy Award nominations for best picture, best actor (DiCaprio), best director (Scorsese), best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay.

On Oscar night, though, it was shut out.