U.S. Seeks to Recover $540 Million ‘Stolen’ From 1MDB Wealth Fund

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities moved to seize a set of 11-carat earrings, a Picasso painting and the rights to two films, all assets authorities say were bought with billions of dollars stolen from a state-owned Malaysian investment fund.

The U.S. Justice Department announced on Thursday the filing of complaints to recover about $540 million it says was stolen from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, the latest legal action tied to alleged money laundering at the sovereign wealth fund.

The fund was set up by Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, in 2009 to promote economic development. In the complaints, the department alleges that more than $4.5 billion was taken from 1MDB by high-level fund officials and their associates.

“This money financed the lavish lifestyles of the alleged co-conspirators at the expense and detriment of the Malaysian people,” Kenneth Blanco, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement. 1MDB could not be immediately reached for comment.

Najib has denied taking money from 1MDB or any other entity for personal gain, after it was reported that investigators traced nearly $700 million to bank accounts that were allegedly in his name.

The assets U.S. authorities are seeking to seize include the rights to a 2014 film they allege was financed through tens of millions of dollars stolen from 1MDB. Last year U.S. authorities moved to seize rights to a 2013 film.

Both films were produced by Red Granite, a company founded by Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz. Red Granite said in a statement it was in discussions with the Justice Department “aimed at resolving these civil cases and is fully cooperating.”

Fraud allegations against 1MDB go back to 2009, the Justice Department said, and the fund is subject to money laundering investigations in at least six countries, including Switzerland and Singapore.

The complaints allege that officials at 1MDB, their relatives and other associates allegedly laundered the funds using complex transactions and shell companies with bank accounts located in the United States and abroad.

That allowed the origin, source and ownership of the funds to be hidden and ultimately passed through U.S. financial institutions, with the money being used to buy and invest in assets in the United States and overseas, according to the complaints.