NEW YORK – A former top banker at Goldman Sachs testified Wednesday that he and other corrupt executives at the firm built a “house of cards” that was doomed to fall to try to conceal an audacious scheme to ransack a Malaysian state investment fund.
In his first day on the witness stand at a New York City trial, Tim Leissner told the jury he paid bribes, took kickbacks and lied to banks to keep the scheme going. Leissner identified Roger Ng, who’s on trial in the federal case, as a key conspirator.
Leissner testified that he, Ng and Low Taek Jho — the Malaysian financier and fugitive socialite known as Jho Low — used off-shore accounts and shell companies to “disguise the flow of funds.” The money laundering efforts also involved drawing up fake contracts with banks, he said.
“If we told any bank the truth, it wouldn’t work. … The house of cards would have fallen down,” he said.
Leissner said Low had “decision-making authority” for the 1MDB state investment fund in a bond transaction considered “the biggest in Goldman Sachs history” — another aspect of the business dealings he had to hide because of Low’s questionable reputation.
Whenever asked about Low, Leissner said, “I lied outright and said no, he was not involved.”
He also described a dinner in London around 2012 where Low informed he and Eg they would be receiving kickbacks. Leissner said he knew that would be illegal, but didn’t care because if the deal went through he would be “a hero” at Goldman Sachs.
Ng, he added, was “particularly glad he was going to be paid some money” because he felt the firm had undercompensated him over the years.
The trial will be on a break until Tuesday, when Leissner is expected to resume his testimony.
Leissner, 52, pleaded guilty in 2018 to paying millions of dollars in bribes to government officials in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. He was ordered to forfeit $43.7 million as part of his guilty plea and agreed to testify against Ng.
Ng’s defense attorneys have described the looting of $4.5 billion from the 1MDB state investment fund as “perhaps the single largest heist in the history of the world.” But they contend U.S. prosecutors scapegoated Ng for “corporate-wide” failures at Goldman that enabled the colossal fraud orchestrated by superiors like Leissner.
Federal prosecutors allege Ng pocketed $35 million in secret kickbacks and conspired to launder pilfered funds through the U.S. financial system. They say he also deleted personal email accounts to cover his tracks.
A former head of investment banking in Malaysia, Ng is the only Goldman banker to stand trial in the 1MDB scandal. The 49-year-old has pleaded not guilty to three counts, including conspiring to launder money and violating an anti-bribery law.
The embezzlement bankrolled lavish spending on jewels, art, a superyacht and luxury real estate. The spoils even helped finance Hollywood movies, including the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Low, who maintains his innocence, became well known in the New York City and Los Angeles club scenes. In 2012, he threw a lavish 31st birthday bash attended by DiCaprio, Kim Kardashian and other celebrities — a fête described by The Wall Street Journal as the “wildest party (Las) Vegas ever saw.”
A Goldman Sachs subsidiary admitted “knowingly and willfully” conspiring to violate U.S. anti-bribery laws, agreeing to pay more than $2.9 billion. The penalties included roughly $600 million in profits Goldman made off the 1MDB scandal. That came on top of $3.9 billion Goldman paid Malaysia.