LEONARDO DiCaprio and Jonah Hill sat back in the opulent splendour of a private plane as another champagne cork popped.
Having just celebrated the arrival of the New Year in Australia, they were being whisked “back in time” across the Pacific to celebrate midnight again in Las Vegas.
It could have been a lavish scene straight out of The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of a notorious 1990s stock market swindler that the two men had just finished filming. But this party was for real.
Their film producer hosts aboard the jet had already earned a reputation for spending cash even before they seemingly came from nowhere to put up more than £65million to make Martin Scorsese’s film about corruption in the financial markets.
Money seemed no object to the men behind Red Granite Pictures — and on December 31, 2012, the film backers were treating their Hollywood guests to the high life.
Now, three-and-a-half years later, DiCaprio and Scorsese find themselves unwittingly at the centre of the world’s biggest financial scandal amid allegations of fraud that dwarf the crimes of the real Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort.
The US Justice Department has claimed that money to finance the movie came from £2.6BILLION, or possibly up to £4.5BILLION, stolen from a Malaysian fund and used to support the extravagance of several men connected to Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak.
American law chiefs have applied to seize more than £750m worth of assets allegedly bought with the cash, including luxury apartments, a private jet, and artworks.
The assets also include future royalties from the 2013 flick The Wolf of Wall Street, although there is absolutely no suggestion DiCaprio or any of the other stars had any involvement in or knowledge of any skimming off of funds from Malaysia’s 1MDB fund.
US attorney general Loretta Lynch, announcing the “largest single action ever brought” by her department under anti-theft laws, said: “We are seeking to forfeit and recover funds that were intended to support the Malaysian people.”
The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund was set up in 2009 by Malaysian PM Najib to promote economic development but has since run up an £8billion debt.
Red Granite Pictures was set up the following year by Kentucky businessman Joey McFarland, 44, and Prime Minister Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, 39, a previously London-based financier.
The two had been introduced by mutual friend Low Taek Jho, known as Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman who had become a regular on the LA, Las Vegas and New York party scenes.
Harrow-educated Mr Low, 34, had forged close links with Mr Aziz’s family and helped set up the fund which became 1MDB.
He was making a reputation for himself as a fixer for the global super-rich, swigging champagne with the stars and spending $100m on homes in Hollywood and New York.
He had already taken a 20 per cent stake in EMI for £80m, and a firm founded by Low owned the luxury L’Ermitage Beverly Hills hotel from where Aziz and McFarland first ran their budding film production company.
Red Granite announced its arrival on the movie scene in 2011 by throwing a million-dollar beach party at the Cannes film festival.
It released its first film, Friends With Kids starring Adam Scott and Kristen Wiig, a few months later.
Meanwhile, Scorsese and Di- Caprio had spent four years trying to find backers for a movie based on the memoirs of jailed Wall Street swindler Belfort.
Low, who knew DiCaprio from the Hollywood party scene, introduced him to Red Granite which was happy to take a gamble.
According to the Wall Street Journal, investigators believe that £118m was moved from 1MDB through offshore shell companies to Red Granite in 2012.
Aziz, in a 2014 interview, denied any Malaysian money had been used and said the main investor was a US businessman based in Abu Dhabi.
The WSJ alleges that £990m was channelled from 1MDB through that same businessman to a company in the British Virgin Islands and that “loans” were moved from that firm to Red Granite Capital, a firm Aziz set up to fund the films.
Three months after shooting of The Wolf of Wall Street started in August 2012, the Red Granite bosses gave DiCaprio the Oscar won by Marlon Brando in 1955, reportedly costing £460,000.
Aziz and Low were also on the private jet that flew DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and fellow actor Jamie Foxx to Las Vegas.
They later accompanied DiCaprio on a VIP trip to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The film grossed around £296m and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture.
When DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for best actor he thanked “Joey, Riz and Jho.”
There is no evidence, according to the WSJ, that any of the profits ended up back in Malaysia.
The company which apparently loaned Red Granite Capital the film funds was liquidated in June last year, although £37m of loans for The Wolf of Wall Street had been repaid.
A spokesman for the film company insisted: “Red Granite is responding to all inquiries and cooperating fully.”
He said the firm “will continue to repay all of its loans”, adding: “There has never been anything inappropriate about any of Red Granite Pictures or Riza Aziz’s business activities.”
The US Department of Justice claims follow a months-long FBI international investigation.
Five other separate investigations are taking place around the world into the alleged global fraud.
The claims refer to Aziz and Low but not to the Malaysian prime minister by name, although one alleged beneficiary of “huge” amounts of money from corruption, “Malaysian official 1”, appears from the descriptions to have powers similar to those of the PM.
The DoJ claims that after 1MDB was set up, officials, under the pretence of investing in a joint venture with a London-based Saudi oil company, transferred more than £760m to a Swiss bank account controlled by Low.
In 2012, 1MDB officials and others diverted proceeds raised by the Goldman Sachs bank group through two separate bond issues.
Of that money, £1bn was diverted to the company in the British Virgin Islands. Another £760m was diverted from a 2013 bond issue.
A 1MDB spokesman said it had not been contacted by the DoJ or any other foreign agency and said it “has never invested in or transferred funds to Red Granite Pictures, whether directly or via intermediaries.”
Low, who has consistently claimed he did not break any laws and was not being investigated, had been liquefying assets and auctioning off artworks by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso in February.
Otherwise he has kept a low profile in the past year.
It is a stark contrast to the days when he would party with Paris Hilton, appear on red carpets with singer Alicia Keys and rub shoulders with Leonardo DiCaprio.
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