Millions paid by Najib, Jho Low to improve their image, reveals US think tank

Fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low. (Bloomberg pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, is hiring a phalanx of public relations firms, lawyers and agents to shore up his image in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, says a Washington DC-based non-profit, non-partisan think tank.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), official records show that Low has spent more than US$1.38 million (RM5.6 million) in campaigns to “unsully” his image. But the actual amount could be higher if legal fees are factored in.

On its website, opensecrets.org, CRP says former prime minister Najib Razak too had enlisted “hard-hitting firms” in the US, including a firm run by former US attorney-general John Ashcroft and another newer firm known for close ties to the Trump administration.

It says Najib’s “foreign agent on record” at the Ashcroft Law Firm is Mark Corallo, a former spokesperson for President Donald Trump’s private legal team in the Russia investigation.

The US Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara) requires agents hired by foreign politicians to register with it and make periodic disclosures of the activities, including money received.

Although the Ashcroft Law Firm submitted Fara disclosures detailing activities undertaken for Najib through the six-month period spanning the second half of 2018, the firm has yet to report receiving any funding, citing an “interruption in work and any payment requirements”.

CRP notes that another firm promoting Najib’s interests, the 45 Group, “reported being paid six-figures by another firm that is registered in the British Virgin Islands but lists an address in Malaysia”.

The think tank says Low, the man at the heart of the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, “is quietly building up an army of foreign agents and firms amid mounting investigations into his financial dealings”.

“Records identified by the Center for Responsive Politics using the Foreign Lobby Watch tool reveal that Low’s operation has continued to add new firms and individuals, racking up at least a seven-figure bill for a conglomeration of reputation management and communications services aimed at currying influence in the US.”

Low hired two law firms — Kobre and Kim and Schillings International — to help him.

CRP says: “The operation epitomises a new breed of litigation communication operatives who have played a behind-the-scenes role in helping burnish the image of wealthy individuals and corporations entangled in international legal battles — for a price.”

It notes that it is not known who is bankrolling the operation.

“Both firms’ registration statements include claims that they have ‘received funds on behalf of the foreign principal’ from a third party, but neither has disclosed the identity of that financier.”

According to CRP, Levick Strategic Communications, a firm recently hired by Kobre and Kim, raked in a US$50,000 advance retainer to provide “strategic communications advice, counsel and execution in contemplation of ongoing, high-profile investigations with heavy press scrutiny” and “related to various ongoing legal proceedings”, from Feb 21 through March 6.

“The registration materials submitted to the DoJ for Levick and another newly-added firm, Reevemark LLC, note that Low ‘identifies himself as a global philanthropist, investor and entrepreneur’.”

Reevemark is set to receive US$175,000 for its work promoting Low from Feb 15 through the end of March followed by monthly payments of US$125,000, according to its initial contract.

“Other Fara records dating back to June 2018 set out other lucrative deals like a US$50,000 per month fee paid by Kobre and Kim to PRCG Haggerty LLC for the first three months of service.

“The firms adjusted the fee structure in August, bumping up PRCG’s monthly retainer to US$100,000 per month, citing the workload.

“On top of that six-figure sum, they contracted to pay an additional US$20,000 per month for ‘Australian partners’ to provide ‘overnight Asia/Pacific coverage and strategy and outreach to Asian and Australian media’ through a PRCG affiliate.”

According to CRP, Kobre and Kim agreed to pay US$55,000 per month to Marathon Strategies — a firm founded by longtime Democratic campaign operative Phil Singer — for media relations and digital services starting in August 2018. A provision in the contract also left open the potential for additional spending on things like video production.

“That month, Kobre and Kim inked a US$70,000 per month contract with digital reputation management firm FiveBlocks. The following month, in September 2018, Kobre and Kim added a US$13,315 contract with a London-based public relations firm called PHA Group.”

It says neither Kobre and Kim nor Schillings International responded to requests for comment before publication.

It adds: “The Fara filings came within weeks of news that DoJ is reportedly investigating whether US$100,000 donated to the Trump re-election campaign’s joint fundraising committee, Trump Victory, may have been funnelled from Low in violation of campaign finance laws barring foreign money in US elections.”

Najib is facing numerous charges in Malaysia while Low was charged in absentia over the 1MDB affair. His whereabouts are not known but his PR agents send statements now and then to the media to claim his innocence.