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1MDB trial hinges on competing portrayals of ex-Goldman banker

The fate of a former Goldman Sachs banker embroiled in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal hangs in the balance as one of the most high-profile Wall Street criminal prosecutions to reach trial in recent years comes to a close.

During the nearly two-month trial, jurors in the Brooklyn federal courthouse heard that Roger Ng, 49, was a skilled, driven banker who helped Goldman win business in Malaysia by building relationships in the country.

It was “to Roger’s credit” that Goldman was the top investment bank in Malaysia for many years, collecting clients including the state of Sarawak and a local lender formerly known as Eon Capital thanks to his connections, according to testimony from his former boss Tim Leissner.

As for his role in the 1MDB scandal, the prosecution and defence have offered jurors starkly different versions of Ng, a Malaysian citizen who has pleaded not guilty and come to the US to face the charges against him.

The government has said Ng was a key link to 1MDB and Jho Low, the Malaysian financier accused of masterminding the fraud, which prosecutors say resulted in the misappropriation of $4.5bn from the state investment fund. Low remains at large and maintains his innocence.

During closing remarks on Monday, prosecutor Alixandra Smith described Ng travelling to Vegas for a gambling trip with Low and flying on the financier’s private jet to Nice, France.

The government accused Ng of pocketing about $35mn in stolen 1MDB funds and attempting to cover his tracks by eliminating entire email accounts. As to why Ng had taken part in the scheme, Smith on Monday said: “Simple. Glory and greed.”

She displayed emails, texts and phone calls to allege stolen 1MDB funds were transferred to an account controlled by Ng and his wife and used to buy jewellery and a gold-plated hourglass, among other things.

Smith said Ng should be held accountable for his role in a “brazen bribery and money laundering scheme”.

Ng had established the initial connection to Low and 1MDB prior to the embezzlement scheme. His lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, said building these relationships was part of his client’s former job as Goldman’s head of investment banking in Malaysia.

Throughout the proceedings, Agnifilo has sought to paint Leissner as the key executor of the 1MDB fraud, saying variously that Ng was the “fall guy” and that the government had “caught the person responsible for this” in Leissner, who was seeking to “close the biggest deal of his life”.

Leissner has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to launder money and violate foreign bribery laws in connection with 1MDB. As the government’s star witness, his testimony lasted for days.

Agnifilo on Monday said there was no evidence linking Ng to the 1MDB fraud aside from the ex-partner’s testimony, which he said included inaccuracies such as Leissner claiming Ng attended Low’s lavish birthday party in Las Vegas, a statement at odds with US border records.

He highlighted lies Leissner told his partners, Goldman and US authorities. “He’s one of a kind . . . This is lying on a rare level,” said Agnifilo. “Bottom line, he’s just not believable.”

Agnifilo drew contrasts between Ng and Leissner. He presented his client as a family man who decided to leave Goldman in 2014 to cut back on travel after having a child, while reminding jurors that Leissner lied to his wife about his children from a previous marriage being in a car accident to “[suit] his interest”, Agnifilo said. “He goes that far.”

Ng maintained a relatively low profile compared to Leissner, whose rapid ascent at the bank and details of his private life, including his marriage to former model Kimora Lee Simmons, were widely known.

Agnifilo sought to portray the $35mn as a “legitimate” payment of debt owed to Ng’s wife, Hwee Bin Lim, after she invested in a business linked to one of Leissner’s former wives.

Lim, who flew to the US from Malaysia to take the stand last week, confirmed this account and said: “The truth itself will save him.” Leissner had testified the wives’ investment was a cover-up, a statement Agnifilo said was false.

Leissner’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Leissner has yet to be sentenced and is co-operating in hopes of a more lenient punishment.

The stakes are high for Ng, who faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. There is also pressure on the justice department, which has dedicated years to bring the case in connection with an embezzlement scheme US officials have labelled “kleptocracy at its worst”.

“Given the effort and expense involved in bringing a case like this to trial it is clear that the DoJ is deadly serious about prosecuting individuals involved in foreign bribery, as opposed to pursuing the low-hanging fruit of financial settlements with corporations,” said Kevin Davis, professor at the New York University School of Law.

Goldman, which brought in more than $600mn in fees from the three bond deals it arranged for 1MDB in 2012 and 2013, has said it was lied to by “certain members of the former Malaysian government and 1MDB”.

The bank struck a settlement of up to $3.9bn with Malaysia and paid a record $2.9bn in a global settlement in 2020. Its Malaysian subsidiary pleaded guilty to a bribery charge.

Convicting Ng would be a high-profile victory for US authorities in a case that Daniel Richman, professor at Columbia Law School, defined as “one of the rare criminal prosecutions against an individual Wall Street figure that actually went to trial”.

“However many speeches justice department officials make about the importance of individual liability, there’s no substitute for actually bringing these cases and prevailing,” he added.

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