KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 12 — Former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had handed over 92 cheques totalling more than RM76 million from 2016 to 2018 to law firm Lewis & Co for the funds to be held on behalf of Yayasan Al-Falah despite him not being the foundation’s trustee, the law firm’s partner confirmed in court today.
Lawyer Muralidharan Balan Pillai, who was testifying as the 87th prosecution witness in Zahid’s corruption and money-laundering trial, also said that he had personally received some of these cheques at Zahid’s residence in Country Heights, Kajang or during Hari Raya or birthday events.
Muralidharan today said he had received these 92 cheques totalling RM76,967,355.41 on different days from May 20, 2016 to April 9, 2018 that were made out to be paid to Lewis & Co, with these cheques then banked into the law firm’s client account that was opened on Zahid’s instructions to specifically put money from the law firm’s client Yayasan Al-Falah.
How were the 92 cheques received
When asked by deputy public prosecutor Datuk Raja Rozela Raja Toran about the 92 cheques which were issued by multiple companies and individuals, Muralidharan however said that all these cheque owners were never his clients and he never had dealings with any of them.
“No, they did not hand these cheques to me.
“All these cheques were handed over to me by Datuk Seri Zahid,” he said in reply to Raja Rozela about the 92 cheques.
When asked if Zahid was Lewis & Co’s client at the time he gave the 92 cheques, Muralidharan replied: “He was not my client, My Lord. And these cheques were given to me on different occasions, staggered, all 92 cheques were not given to me at the same time.”
As for where the cheques were handed over, Muralidharan said it would usually be “either Datuk Seri Zahid’s house or from his office”, and that the cheques would sometimes be sent to his office in an envelope left on his table along with a note stating that the cheques were from Zahid.
Muralidharan said he personally collected some of the cheques from Zahid’s house in Country Heights, further noting: “Sometimes, even during functions, Hari Raya functions, his birthday functions, I have received the cheques also from him.”
What were the 92 cheques for?
Muralidharan said Zahid had told him the funds in the cheques were for a mosque and a religious school (tahfiz) in Bagan Datuk, Perak, adding that the then minister had asked him to put the money in fixed deposits to earn interest on behalf of Yayasan Al-Falah.
“These cheques, I was basically told by him, were for religious and charitable purposes. These cheques, in particular, were for the construction of a mosque in Bagan Datuk and also a tahfiz in Bagan Datuk. Basically that, it was for a religious and charitable purpose.
“These cheques I was told the moment they cleared, to put them in fixed deposits so that interest can be earned, and they were to be placed under the foundation, Yayasan Al-Falah,” he said in court.
Zahid is MP of Bagan Datuk.
Zahid not a trustee
Despite Zahid giving the 92 cheques and issuing instructions on how the RM76 million in funds were to be handled on behalf of Yayasan Al-Falah, Muralidharan however confirmed that Zahid is “not a trustee of Yayasan Al-Falah”.
Muralidharan said Zahid’s brother Datuk Seri Mohammad Nasaee Ahmad Tarmizi is both the chairman and a trustee of Yayasan Al-Falah, and that he had met Nasaee in Zahid’s house as well as during Hari Raya functions.
Muralidharan confirmed that Yayasan Al-Falah was his client at the time he received the 92 cheques, saying he was appointed to be the lawyer around May 2016 when he first received the cheques.
When asked if there were any documents on his appointment as Yayasan Al-Falah’s lawyer, Muralidharan said there was no such document as Lewis & Co was carrying out free work for the foundation: “No, My Lord, it is the practice of the firm, for charitable organisations, when we are doing pro bono work, we don’t take any warrant. Of course, there was the trust the client had with us.”
For the client Yayasan Al-Falah, Muralidharan said he was instructed to collect the cheques, hold onto the funds from the cheques as a stakeholder and to pay them out as instructed.
Raja Rozela: The instruction to hold the monies came from Yayasan Al-Falah?
Muralidharan: Basically, it came from Datuk Seri Zahid but Datuk Seri Nasaee was aware of it.
When asked by Raja Rozela again if the instructions on the handling of the RM76 million came from Yayasan Al-Falah, Muralidharan again replied that these instructions came from Zahid.
More instructions from Zahid
Muralidharan confirmed that none of these 92 cheques were given to him by Yayasan Al-Falah or made payable to the foundation, but said all transactions involving the 92 cheques were recorded under Yayasan Al-Falah’s file in Lewis & Co as Zahid had given instructions to do so.
“I was told by Datuk Seri Zahid to put it under the Yayasan Al-Falah file,” he said.
Muralidharan said that Zahid was the one who had told him to open a file for Yayasan Al-Falah at Lewis & Co, and that it was also Zahid who had asked him to open a client account with the bank to handle the funds under Yayasan Al-Falah.
“Initially, he was not sure under which client to put it, but when negotiations for the contract came about for the [construction of the] mosque [in Bagan Datuk] which was under Yayasan Al-Falah, that’s the time he told me to put it under the Yayasan Al-Falah file,” he said.
As for the purpose of opening the account, Muralidharan said: “Sole purpose was actually to maintain the Yayasan Al-Falah monies for religious and charitable purposes.”
Both the file for Yayasan Al-Falah and the client account opened for Yayasan Al-Falah’s funds were opened on the same day — May 20, 2016 — Muralidharan confirmed.
Other than the 92 cheques worth RM76 million, Muralidharan said he had also received 10 other cheques from Zahid when money became payable under a contract agreement upon signing, as Muralidharan did not want to withdraw the fixed deposit savings before their term matured and lose interest on them for Yayasan Al-Falah.
Muralidharan confirmed that he did not receive any cheques from anyone else to be banked into Lewis & Co’s client account which was opened for Yayasan Al-Falah.
When asked if the cheques came from Lewis & Co’s client Yayasan Al-Falah, Muralidharan again said the cheques were given to him by Zahid. Muralidharan had earlier said Zahid was not his client then.
Raja Rozela: Are you obligated as an advocate and solicitor to hold cheques in a client account even though the monies do not come from the client?
Muralidharan: I know Datuk Seri Zahid and Datuk Seri Nasaee are very closely related and he wanted this because if not mistaken, it is a family foundation.
Earlier, Muralidharan also said his law firm Lewis & Co was not directly involved in any projects under Yayasan Al-Falah and was only involved in matters of making payments or paperwork for contracts.
While stating that the law firm carries out free work for organisations such as temples or churches, Muralidharan however confirmed that neither he nor his law firm had been appointed to sit on the board of trustees of Yayasan Akalbudi or any charitable organisations.
As for Yayasan Akalbudi which is a separate organisation, Muralidharan said he knew this organisation to be where Zahid is a “trustee” and as a body also for “religious and charitable purposes”.
Previously, Lewis & Co’s accountant V. Sothilechmy had confirmed that Yayasan Akalbudi is not a client of the law firm, while the law firm’s partner Premshangar Venugopal yesterday said the law firm had never acted as a trustee for Yayasan Akalbudi and did not have a file for this organisation.
About Zahid and Muralidharan
Muralidharan today said he had known Zahid since around 2006 or 2007 when they met in a mutual acquaintance’s office and Lewis & Co had handled some civil litigation matters for Zahid, but confirmed that he had kept in touch after that.
“I used to go to his house during Hari Raya festivals or functions at his house in Country Heights,” he said, before describing their relationship as one that involves “trust” and maybe “friendship”.
Throughout the time that Muralidharan had known him, Zahid was first the defence minister, before later becoming home minister, and the deputy prime minister.
In this trial, Zahid ― who is a former deputy prime minister and currently the Umno president ― is facing 47 charges, namely 12 counts of criminal breach of trust in relation to charitable foundation Yayasan Akalbudi’s funds, 27 counts of money-laundering, and eight counts of bribery charges.
The trial proceedings ended earlier than expected today as Zahid was unwell.
Zahid’s trial before High Court judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah resumes tomorrow afternoon, with Muralidharan expected to continue testifying.