Leonardo DiCaprio (left) with Low, the Malaysian businessman at the center of the 1MDB embezzlement scandal.
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) with Low, the Malaysian businessman at the center of the 1MDB embezzlement scandal.
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Leonardo DiCaprio, the Malaysian Money Scandal and His "Unusual" Foundation

According to the Justice Department, certain donations to the Oscar winner's charity came directly from a multibillion-dollar embezzlement drama in Southeast Asia.

On the evening of July 20, under a tent at a vineyard in St. Tropez brimming to his specifications with booze, billionaires and babes, Leonardo DiCaprio was preparing to host one of the glitziest charitable events of the year: the third annual fundraiser for his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Earlier that same day, under far less glamorous auspices half a world away, the U.S. Department of Justice was filing a complaint with the U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles that suggested the recent Oscar winner is a bit player in the planet's largest embezzlement case, totaling more than $3 billion siphoned from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund called 1MDB.

While the complaint does not target DiCaprio — he's referred to twice in the 136-page document and only as "Hollywood Actor 1" — the scandal shines an unfamiliar light on the charitable foundation of the most powerful actor in Hollywood thanks to the way the LDF has benefited directly from DiCaprio's relationship with key figures in the saga. And much like the gala in St. Tropez, with its expressions of one-percenter excess ostensibly in support of saving the environment (guests helicoptering in to dine on whole sea bass after watching a short film about the dangers of overfishing), a closer look at the LDF itself raises questions about its ties to the 1MDB players as well as the lack of transparency often required (or offered in this case) for the specific structure the actor has chosen for his endeavor.


From left: Constance Jablonski, Joan Smalls, Doutzen Kroes, Lily Donaldson and Anja Rubik were photographed just before the July 20 Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gala in St. Tropez.

Set up not as a nonprofit but instead as a donor-advised fund (DAF) attached to the California Community Foundation, which is a nonprofit, the LDF therefore is not required to file itemized public disclosures about its own revenue, expenditures and disbursements. "It's difficult to characterize the giving of the DiCaprio Foundation because its status as part of the CCF makes it impossible to look at its finances," industry trade journal Inside Philanthropy noted in 2015.

Despite repeated efforts, DiCaprio, 41, the LDF and the CCF all declined to fully answer fundamental questions related to transparency and accountability of the foundation — a decision that disappoints charity experts consulted by THR. "Everything might be perfectly fine, but we don't know," says Aaron Dorfman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, of the LDF.

Among the questions asked: Who pays for the LDF's six-member staff (the CCF is not allowed to cover the expense) as well as underwrites the events and other operating costs? What's the total overhead, and how much of the money raised goes into operations versus charitable grants?


DiCaprio (right) with LDF global finance chairman Gatsby at the 2014 gala.

Also, is the LDF's global finance chairman, Milutin Gatsby — a Serb likely originally known as Gijic — operating under a pseudonym? (Yes, Gatsby-and-Gatsby jokes were on the lips of just about everyone at the St. Tropez event.) The LDF wouldn't make Gatsby available for comment.

(It also is unclear whether the DOJ will try to recoup 1MDB assets donated to the LDF. The Justice Department would not comment, other than to say this is an ongoing investigation. THR has learned, however, that charities are not off-limits in such asset-seizure cases.)

Multiple attendees who spoke to THR describe the annual LDF galas as freewheeling bacchanals in which wives feel outnumbered by suspiciously predisposed Slavic women in bustiers and couples openly cavort in the bathroom stalls. At the July 20 event in St. Tropez, where tickets started at $11,778 (10,500 euros) DiCaprio greeted a roomful of approximately 500 partygoers, including oligarchs (Dmitry Rybolovlev), supermodels (Naomi Campbell) and plenty of fellow A-listers, among them Bono, Charlize Theron, Tobey Maguire, Robert De Niro, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


From left: Kroes, Saudi producer Mohammed Al Turki, Smalls and Alessandra Ambrosio at the LDF gala.

Notably absent this year was Jho Low, 35, the bespectacled Malaysian businessman and party boy at the center of the 1MDB scandal who, at least as early as 2010, became a regular drinking buddy of DiCaprio's (the biggest star on a roster of Low's celebrity friends that includes Paris Hilton, Jamie Foxx and Alicia Keys). Low, notorious for stunts like sending 23 bottles of Cristal to Lindsay Lohan for her 23rd birthday at the club 1OAK in Las Vegas in 2009, is alleged in the DOJ complaint to have used roughly $1 billion in 1MDB funds for a personal shopping spree. This included the acquisition of a $31 million penthouse in Manhattan's Time Warner Center, once occupied by Jay Z and Beyonce, and a $39 million Hollywood Hills mansion a few doors down from DiCaprio.

Low, who graduated from Wharton School of Business in 2005, in 2009 was brought into the inner circle of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as an adviser on a precursor to the 1MDB wealth fund. Despite only earning the bit-part title of "Malaysian Official 1" in the Justice Department complaint, Razak is the key figure at the heart of the scandal. But it's Razak's stepson Riza Aziz who provides the link to both Low and DiCaprio. It was Low who introduced Aziz to Joey McFarland, previously Hilton's party booker, and together they set up Red Granite Pictures. Red Granite eventually would surprise Hollywood insiders by landing the rights to DiCaprio's passion project The Wolf of Wall Street. The DOJ complaint alleges, however, that the financing for the film came from a $238 million pot of money siphoned from the 1MDB fund. (Red Granite maintains it is cooperating with all inquiries; the company still has an office above DiCaprio's own Appian Way in a Sunset Strip midrise opposite Soho House West Hollywood.)


The DOJ alleges Low paid for Vincent van Gogh’s La Maison de Vincent a Arles using money from the 1MDB fund and an account in Singapore. It was seized by Swiss authorities July 21.

The 1MDB saga has been Hollywood-tinged from the start. Tim Leissner, the Goldman Sachs banker who brokered the deal that set everything in motion, is Kimora Lee Simmons' husband. (He since has left the firm.) Low was given a "special thanks" in the film's credits and hailed as a "collaborator" in DiCaprio's 2014 Golden Globes acceptance speech. The Malaysian returned the favor in grand fashion with splashy bromantic gifts — in one instance, according to the DOJ, he and the Red Granite execs brought DiCaprio along on an $11 million gambling bender in Las Vegas; in another, they reportedly laid out $600,000 to gift him Marlon Brando's best actor Oscar statuette for On the Waterfront. (DiCaprio — who has a notable habit of buddying up with smooth dudes who end up in federal prison for money crimes, from late investment adviser Dana Giacchetto to art dealer Helly Nahmad — still was several prestige roles away from finally claiming his own.)

They also made donations to DiCaprio's foundation. At the actor's birthday party in 2013, Low and McFarland were among those who reportedly helped raise more than $3 million for the charity by buying marked-up bottles of champagne. Earlier that year, diverted 1MDB funds were alleged by the DOJ complaint to have been used by Low to purchase a pair of artworks (for a total of $1.1 million) by Ed Ruscha and Mark Ryden at a Christie's auction benefiting the LDF (one of many buys during a spending spree that shook the art world). And at the glittering St. Tropez auction held in 2015, with the likes of David Geffen, Paul Allen, Tom Barrack and Harvey Weinstein in attendance, Low offered the LDF a sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein, 1982's Brushstroke, valued at roughly $700,000. But Low wasn't there to see it go under the hammer; instead, he is believed to have fled to Taiwan — which has no extradition treaty with the U.S. — as the net of international investigators began closing in.


Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke sculpture

According to the LDF, the July 20 gala raised more than $45 million in funds for global conservation efforts. Yet the organization would provide no documentation to THR to support these and other claims. Due to its unorthodox structure, the LDF is not obligated to disclose any specifics about its donations and repeatedly has been critiqued in recent years by Inside Philanthropy for its opacity as a prominent celebrity charity. (By comparison, the most recently available 990 IRS nonprofit filing from, for instance, Elton John's AIDS Foundation, runs 101 pages to account for an entity handling just over $10 million in assets.)

The LDF did provide a statement from its recently hired CEO, Terry Tamminen. He contends that grants of more than $30 million already have been made so far this year and calls the LDF "an incredibly efficient, highly effective philanthropic organization that, through its relationship to the California Community Foundation, is supporting credible organizations that are carrying out some of the most important work on the planet." In its own statement, the CCF's senior counsel, Carol Bradford, explains that it "strives to preserve the wishes of our many donors, which can often include anonymity or privacy in their giving choices."

The LDF wasn't always a donor-advised fund. For its first decade, it was a small nonprofit run by DiCaprio's mother, Irmelin, distributing $1.6 million in 2008, its final year before dissolving its status to join the CCF. (DiCaprio's father, George, and noted economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, rounded out the board.)


Low snapped up a Bombardier private jet for $35.3 million.

DAFs increasingly have become preferred giving vehicles in the U.S., largely due to their immediate charitable tax deductions, negligible startup costs and the fact that they're not subject to the same annual payout requirements as a private foundation. According to a 2015 report published by the National Philanthropic Trust, the number of accounts launched between 2010 and 2014 jumped 29 percent, bringing the total to 238,293. While the most prominent entrant during this period was Mark Zuckerberg's $2.5 billion charitable effort in 2014, set up at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and greeted with public criticism over its structure, the NPT says the average account size is $300,000. In a fact sheet the LDF provided to THR, its decision to become a DAF is positioned as one of practicality and efficiency — that the well-regarded, century-old CCF (which manages nearly 1,600 charitable entities totaling $1.5 billion in assets) could assist with due diligence regarding grantees as well as expertly handle backend financial and administrative functions pertaining to donations processing. (The CCF also handles funds for a few other Hollywood figures, including Eva Longoria and, as it happens, Foxx.)

In general, DAFs' rising popularity, which experts explain also is bolstered by the paucity of red tape in the sector, has brought skepticism. The IRS, according to its web page about the category, now is examining cases (though none are specifically named) of DAFs that "appear to be established for the purpose of generating questionable charitable deductions, and providing impermissible economic benefits to donors and their families (including tax-sheltered investment income for the donors) and management fees for promoters." (THR has no evidence that the LDF is using the DAF structure in such a way.)


Viceroy L’Ermitage Beverly Hills was bought by a company called Wynton in January 2010, using funds traceable to Low’s bank account, which the DOJ says were misappropriated from the 1MDB development fund.

Philanthropy authorities say the LDF, with its possibly subsidized staff and lavish events — as well as, crucially, its international solicitation apparatus — is a relative anomaly among community foundation DAFs, which typically are far more simple: A donor provides his own money and then advises where it should be spent. "It's unusual," says Ann Skeet, a director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, which examines ethics in businesses and nonprofits. Adds Ray Madoff, head of The Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good at Boston College Law School, "Typically, Leonardo DiCaprio would gift his own assets to his donor-advised fund rather than using it as a fundraising vehicle."

That one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood — whom United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2014 designated as a U.N. Messenger of Peace, with a special focus on climate change — has been sainted by his professional and social circles for his globe-trotting do-gooding may have permitted him to operate with comparatively little scrutiny so far. Notes Daniel Borochoff, president of Chicago-based CharityWatch: "[DAFs'] structure allows them to shirk accountability. They aren't obligated to tell you, as a donor, anything. [DiCaprio's] able to fundraise with one because he's such a huge international celebrity. If you were an unknown, it would be a lot harder because people would quickly start asking questions."

Alex Ritman contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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