By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK – A former Goldman Sachs banker charged with helping to embezzle hundreds of millions of dollars from Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund will go on trial in the United States next week, in a case that could shed light on how the bank responded to warnings of corruption.
Roger Ng, Goldman’s former investment banking chief in Malaysia, will be the first – and likely only – person to stand trial in the United States over one of the biggest financial scandals in Wall Street history.
Ng’s former boss, Timothy Leissner, pleaded guilty in 2018 to money laundering and corruption charges, while a Goldman subsidiary in 2020 pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate an anti-bribery law.
Ng has pleaded not guilty to three counts of conspiring to launder money and violate an anti-bribery law. Opening statements are scheduled for Monday in federal court in Brooklyn.
Prosecutors say Ng and Leissner evaded Goldman’s internal compliance protocols. But Ng’s lawyers say he had no role in the crimes and that Leissner falsely implicated him in an effort to reduce his punishment. Leissner, Goldman’s former Southeast Asia chairman, has not yet been sentenced.
Legal experts said Ng faces tough odds since prosecutors will likely show the jury emails and online chats indicating his involvement, as well as financial records showing he benefited from the scheme. They are also expected to call Leissner as a witness.
“They have a bit of a mountain to climb especially since his boss has turned on him and will provide the testimony necessary to link him into the conversations, the actions, the strategy which facilitated the criminal act,” said Michael Weinstein, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Cole Schotz PC and a former federal prosecutor.
The charges against Ng, 50, are related to some $4.5 billion U.S. prosecutors say was embezzled between 2009 and 2014 from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a fund launched in 2009 by Malaysia’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, to spur economic growth.
During that period, prosecutors say, Goldman earned $600 million in fees for helping 1MDB sell $6.5 billion in bonds. But Ng, Leissner, and a Malaysian intermediary named Jho Low conspired to pay $1.6 billion in bribes to officials in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi to win the business for Goldman, according to prosecutors.
Low has not been arrested by U.S. or Malaysian authorities. Malaysia says Low is in China, which Beijing has denied.
Goldman Sachs in 2020 paid a $2.3 billion fine, returned $600 million in ill-gotten gains and agreed for its Malaysian subsidiary to plead guilty in U.S. court as part of a deal, known as a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), with the Department of Justice.
Ng’s lawyers acknowledge he introduced Low to Leissner, but say he had no further role in the scheme and later warned his superiors at Goldman that Low was “not to be trusted,” a November 2020 court filing shows.
“He just wasn’t involved with Leissner and Low and a host of other people in this stunningly massive series of crimes,” said Marc Agnifilo, a lawyer for Ng, describing his client as a “fall guy.”
Agnifilo said financial inflows that Ng received that prosecutors call ill-gotten gains had nothing to do with 1MDB.
The long-running scandal, which came to light in 2015, has had far-reaching consequences and led to widespread public outcry in Malaysia. Najib, who was voted out of office in 2018, is accused by Malaysian authorities of receiving more than $1 billion traceable to 1MDB. Najib, who has appealed a 12-year prison sentence, has consistently denied wrongdoing.
At least six other countries, including Singapore and Switzerland, have launched investigations into 1MDB’s dealings.
But after reaching the DPA in 2020, Goldman itself is unlikely to face any material damage from Ng’s trial, said Odeon Capital analyst Dick Bove. Chief Executive David Solomon has revived the bank’s fortunes since his appointment as CEO in October 2018, delivering record annual profit in 2021.
“No one is going to come after David Solomon over what this guy did in Malaysia years ago,” Bove said. “I’m sure that there will be a lot of incendiary information that comes out, but from the standpoint of Wall Street, these pieces of information will be nothing but an embarrassment and annoyance.”
While Solomon in 2018 blamed the scandal on employees who “broke the law” and said the company’s compliance was strong, he said at the time of the October 2020 settlement that there were “institutional failures” at the bank.
That shift could make it hard for Ng to argue he is simply a scapegoat, said former federal prosecutor Bruce Searby.
The argument “doesn’t take any responsibility away from Roger Ng,” said Searby, now a white-collar defense lawyer in Washington, D.C.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Matt Scuffham in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Matthew Lewis)