KUALA LUMPUR, April 21 ― Low Taek Jho ― better known as Jho Low ― was the “hidden hand” in 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the government-owned company’s former chief financial officer Azmi Tahir said today.
Azmi said this while explaining why the 1MDB management took instructions from Low over 1MDB matters.
Testifying as the 12th prosecution witness in former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s trial over the misappropriation of more than RM2 billion of 1MDB funds, Azmi confirmed he believed that instructions from Low were from Najib and also affirmed that he believed Low to be the representative of Najib.
Najib’s lead defence lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah then asked if Azmi had ever checked with 1MDB’s board of directors whether the 1MDB management can act on Low’s instructions.
Shafee: Did you raise this in board meeting, can the board give me direction whether the management can act on directions of Jho Low?
Azmi: I think I mentioned before, not long after Hazem came in, he got me to see Tan Sri Ismee to ask, so the response by Tan Sri Ismee, in all companies there are hidden hands, in Tabung Haji there are several, in 1MDB it is this person.
Azmi was referring to former 1MDB CEO Mohd Hazem Abd Rahman, and to former 1MDB director Tan Sri Ismee Ismail. Ismee was also the CEO of Malaysia’s Muslims pilgrimage fund board Lembaga Tabung Haji from 2006 to 2016.
Azmi confirmed however that he did not officially ask 1MDB directors in board meetings about Low giving directions to the 1MDB management, and said he had only raised it unofficially such as to Ismee. Azmi also disagreed with Shafee’s suggestion that the 1MDB board did not know management was taking instructions from Low.
Asked by Shafee if he did tell Hazem that he was feeling uncomfortable in taking directions from outside 1MDB on an internal matter, Azmi replied “No, because we believed he was acting for the shareholder”.
When Shafee asked “‘we’ means you and Hazem believed Jho Low was acting for Datuk Seri Najib”, Azmi replied “yes”.
Low did not hold any official positions in 1MDB, but was testified by witnesses in this trial to have issued talking points and instructions on 1MDB matters and was seen by 1MDB senior management to be Najib’s adviser and representative for 1MDB affairs.
When explaining why he had believed Low’s instructions to be instructions from Najib, Azmi noted that Najib’s then principal private secretary Datuk Azlin Alias had introduced Low to be acting for Najib.
Azmi today also cited a trip to a Middle Eastern nation that he made on Low’s instructions, in order to present online news reports by financial news outlet The Edge on 1MDB to then prime minister Najib in a hotel there.
Azmi said he was told by Low that Najib may want to take action against The Edge, and that Low had instructed him on which floor to go to in the hotel to meet Najib.
Azmi said the two guards outside the hotel room had stopped him and that they had remained quiet and stood there after he said he was there to see Najib, adding that it was shortly after he texted Low to say the officers would not let him into the room that the door opened and that he then met Najib face-to-face subsequently.
“I texted Jho Low and said I’m here, I’m in front of this room, they won’t let me in. Very shortly after that the door opened, so to me, that’s indication that he communicated with someone in there. Who could do that,” he said.
Asked by Shafee if he was trying to impress the High Court that Low was able to make phone calls to Najib, Azmi replied: “That’s the impression that I have.”
Azmi said he had “very limited” opportunities to meet Najib, including a meeting on December 15, 2013 between Najib and KPMG on the delayed signing off on the audited 2013 financial statements for 1MDB.
Shafee repeatedly challenged Azmi on whether he had checked directly with Najib on whether Low was the latter’s representative, but Azmi readily admitted that he had not done so and also agreed that he does not have direct experience of Najib actually directing Low to take action on 1MDB.
Pressed by Shafee on why he had not personally clarified or confirmed directly with Najib about Low, Azmi explained it was due to protocol.
Shafee: You have never confirmed this, you have never taken the matter with Datuk Seri Najib directly to clarify whether you should take instructions from Jho Low on 1MDB matter. That you as CFO, that you are bound to take instructions from Jho Low, is that his direction, ever had the occasion to ask this?
Azmi: I answered this before, I didn’t, because I think it’s not appropriate.
Shafee: Why do you think it’s not appropriate?
Azmi: Can I give example, even in company, dealing with board members, we have protocol, we have decorum, these are very senior people, we don’t just talk to them. Generally, you can agree a lot of companies are like that, what more the prime minister, this was my feeling, did not feel it is appropriate.
Shafee then questioned if he was citing his Malay culture as not allowing him to ask the then prime minister about Low, with Azmi then saying that his practice of decorum was his value and pointed out that he had already explained that he did not ask Najib as he did not think it appropriate.
Later, Shafee suggested that Azmi had visited Brazil in July 2014 together with Hazem, Low and then 1MDB chief investment officer Vincent Koh to allegedly attend a semi-final football match between Brazil and Germany for the World Cup.
Azmi however disagreed with this suggestion and denied he had visited Brazil for the World Cup in 2014, and declined to provide consent for Shafee to check with the immigration authorities on his 2014 travels as it was personal information and even after Shafee said he could be trusted to do a limited check.
While Azmi said he would show his 2014 passport if he still had it, it was subsequently informed in the afternoon to the High Court via the prosecution that Azmi had not managed to find this passport.
Asked by Shafee, Azmi confirmed he had never received any money or any gifts from Low including watches, BlackBerry phone, or any perks such as travelling with Low on a private jet.
Shafee claimed that Azmi was in the habit of taking luxury treatment such as from friends and alleged that was why he purportedly took a private jet with Low and others to go to Brazil for the World Cup, but Azmi disagreed.
While confirming that he had previously attended an F1 car race in Abu Dhabi with other 1MDB officials as invited by Abu Dhabi firm Aabar Investments PJS CEO Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, Azmi disagreed that it was Low who had arranged for them to attend and for their seating and said he did not know whether these were premium seats.
Najib’s 1MDB trial resumes on May 9, where Shafee is expected to cross-examine Azmi on the passport issue and lead prosecutor Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram is expected to re-examine Azmi.