Tommy Thomas says would never have approved ‘sweetheart deal’ for Najib's stepson Riza Aziz

Former attorney general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex February 4, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Former attorney general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex February 4, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 — Tan Sri Tommy Thomas today declared that he would never have approved the agreement that resulted in Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz’s conditional discharge from money-laundering charges over US$248 million (RM1.08 billion by today’s exchange rate) of funds linked to the 1MDB scandal, calling it a “sweetheart deal” favouring Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz and also questioning the timing of his release from the charges.

Thomas, who was the attorney general from June 2018 to late February 2020, said he has had to put the record straight for a second time on this issue after his name was mentioned several times by his successor Attorney General Tan Sri Idrus Harun in a press statement yesterday.

Among other things, Idrus yesterday claimed that he had been advised that the lead prosecutor in Riza Aziz’s case  Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, in consultation with then Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief Latheefa Koya, had suggested for MACC to accept Riza’s lawyers’ proposals for the deal, with Idrus also claiming that he had been advised Thomas had “agreed to the suggestion in principle“.

But Thomas rejected the claim, saying he would have never backed the deal.

“Since Tan Sri Idrus is at pains to emphasise the weight he gave to my so called ‘agreement in principle’ (which itself is a fiction), let me state publicly that I would have never sanctioned this deal. 

“I would have lost all credibility in the eyes of the people of Malaysia whom I endeavoured to serve as public prosecutor to the best of my ability, honestly and professionally if I had approved it. I would have betrayed the trust the Prime Minister and the PH government had reposed in me,” he said in a statement today.

When commenting on the deal struck between the prosecution and Riza that resulted in the latter’s conditional discharge last week, Thomas said Malaysia would have received the money or proceeds from the assets anyway from the US’ Department of Justice (DOJ).

“The purpose of prosecuting Riza was not to strengthen our chances of securing monies from DOJ. DOJ would have returned these monies in any event because it belongs to Malaysia and was stolen from Malaysia. 

“Riza is not offering to pay any new money or monies from any source other than DOJ seized assets. The US$108 million, would, in any event, be returned by DOJ to Malaysia. Thus, Riza is unnecessarily getting credit for returning monies that are not his. Hence, it is a sweetheart deal for Riza but terrible for Malaysia,” he said.

Also commenting on the statement by Idrus yesterday where the current attorney general said that the Malaysian government is expected to “recover approximately USD108 million”, Thomas said this was a “red herring” as he asserted that strong ties built with the DOJ had already resulted in money from the 1MDB scandal being returned to Malaysia.

“By personal diplomacy, we established strong relations with DOJ after I took office. They have returned billions of ringgit, and more monies may be released in future by DOJ.”

Among other things, Idrus yesterday said that the deal struck with Riza related to the latter’s proposal to surrender his rights in three US DOJ-seized properties in the UK and US, to have money seized from him forfeited to the Malaysian government and to pay a compound, while the MACC had also instructed Riza to give up his rights in another asset in the form of a poster for the 1927 movie Metropolis and to transfer US$14,087,072.76 (over US$14 million) held in a US bank account to the Malaysian government.

Idrus had said this arrangement would result in the Malaysian government’s expected recovery of around US$108 million (subject to the eventual proceeds from the sale of the assets and deduction of associated costs) to be credited into the 1MDB Asset Recovery Trust Account, which would be in addition to over US$57 million traceable to 1MDB and previously forfeited in April 2019 from Riza’s co-owned Red Granite Pictures.

(The MACC had on May 14 said the deal would result in the Malaysian government’s expected recovery of overseas assets involved in the offences at an estimated value of US$107.3 million (RM465.3 million).)

Thomas also questioned why the prosecution had on May 14 sought for a discharge not amounting to acquittal (DNAA) of Riza even before the fulfilling of the terms of the deal.

“Finally, even the timing of Riza’s DNAA is bizarre. In both civil and criminal proceedings which proceed to trial, a plaintiff or the prosecution loses substantial leverage over the adverse party if it withdraws court proceeding before the terms of settlement are completely performed. This is elementary.

“Hence, one needs to question why Riza has been given a DNAA so prematurely,” he said.

Earlier in the same statement, Thomas said he had as attorney general then in July 2019 decided to charge Riza for money-laundering offences allegedly committed between April 2011 and November 2012 over the US$248 million 1MDB funds, as he was of the view that there was a strong case against Riza.

“I was satisfied that the prosecution had a very strong case to establish the ingredients of the offences. The documentary trail was substantial and highly credible,” he said, adding that he had only decided to charge Riza after applying the same rigorous approach used in evaluating whether a case should be prosecuted.

“Only when I was satisfied that the prosecution could secure a conviction, did I make the decision to prosecute. It was always a deliberate and properly analysed decision. That same rigour was brought to the decision to prosecute Riza. 

“In none of these 25 odd cases, did I consider favourably a request by any accused to settle on such terribly poor terms to the prosecution. That would have called into question the wisdom and integrity of my decision to prosecute in the first place,” he said, referring to over 25 criminal cases that he had decided to personally prosecute during his tenure as attorney general.

Thomas noted Idrus’ claim yesterday to have been advised that Thomas had — after reading a November 18, 2019 letter of representation from Riza’s lawyers seeking a review of the five charges — allegedly wrote a November 19, 2019 minute to Sri Ram saying that he was prepared to consider the representation.

While Thomas acknowledged that it was his style to leave written minutes and confirmed that he did write notes to Sri Ram on the November 18, 2019 letter, he said he did not currently have access to the original letter with his handwriting and is therefore unable to comment on the claim.

But Thomas reiterated his previous statement, stressing that he had not made any decision throughout his tenure as attorney general on Riza’s representation for a review of the charges.

“What is abundantly clear is that I did not make any decision in relation to Riza’s representation up to the date of my resignation, 28 February 2020. A decision of this importance involving billions of ringgit and significant public interest would be made by me in writing. I did not, and none exist,” he asserted.

Thomas also said he did not speak to his successor Idrus since stepping down on February 28 which he said was not unusual as he too did not communicate with his predecessor during his own tenure as attorney general, further saying he did not talk to Sri Ram on this topic involving Riza’s case after he stepped down and up until May 14.

“I spoke on a couple of occasions with Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram over the telephone between 28 February and 14 May 2020, but this subject was never raised by him. Hence after my resignation, I was kept in the dark on this and all other matters,” he said.

Riza Aziz is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court, September 23, 2019. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Riza Aziz is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court, September 23, 2019. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

On July 5, 2019, Riza was charged with five counts of money-laundering offences over the US$248 million under Section 4(1)(a) of the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act 2001 (AMLATFA) --- which was the version of the law applicable at the time of the alleged crime from April 2011 to November 2012.

If convicted under any of the five counts, the penalty is a maximum RM5 million fine or maximum five-year jail term or both.

Riza’s charges were not brought under an amended version of the law which comes with heavier punishments, since he allegedly committed the offences before the newer version of the law came into force.

The newer version of the law, Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act 2001 (AMLATFPUAA) which came into force from September 2014 onwards, carries a heftier penalty of a maximum 15-year jail term and a fine of not less than five times the sum of the illegal funds or RM5 million, whichever is higher.

Related Articles