Robert De Niro on His Connection to the Malaysian Corruption Scandal: "I Don't Give a Shit"
The actor — whose Tribeca Film Institute took a donation from those accused of embezzlement, while his son sold the prime suspect $55 million in NYC real estate — says he would give back the money if necessary.
Leonardo DiCaprio is undoubtedly the highest-profile Hollywood name connected to the 1MDB Malaysian corruption scandal, which, in addition to more than a billion dollars of alleged money laundering, helped to finance his hit drama The Wolf of Wall Street.
But another A-list name has appeared several times in the same orbit as the central figures in the fraud case, which is now part of a major U.S. Department of Justice complaint and ongoing criminal investigation.
On April 16, 2010, Robert De Niro was among the guests at a star-studded event at the St. Regis in New York. The ceremony, also attended by Jamie Foxx and Charlize Theron, was held in honor of Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, who was there to receive the inaugural International Peace and Harmony Award presented by the Business Council for International Understanding.
Razak, who set up the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund at the center of the corruption scandal, now is understood to be "Malaysian Official 1" in a list of "relevant individuals" featured as part of the DOJ's record-breaking seizure complaint, which describes a "high-ranking official in the Malaysian government." A recent demonstration in Malaysia calling for Razak's arrest used the term "Malaysian Official 1" prominently.
Three months later, De Niro visited Razak and Mansor in Kuala Lumpur, with Mansor telling Malaysian press at the time that she had offered him a personal invitation so he didn't "listen to all the wrong things" about the country and "put things in the right perspective."
As De Niro, 73, was getting to know the Malaysian PM and first lady, Jho Low — their close associate and the businessman at the heart of the DOJ investigation who is alleged to have used 1MDB as his personal piggy bank — was doing a spot of shopping in New York.
In February 2010, he splashed $23.98 million on a penthouse at the Park Laurel luxury condominium in Lincoln Square, and later made several inspections of a 76th-floor unit at the Time Warner Center overlooking Central Park where Jay Z and Beyonce once lived, eventually snapping it up for $30.55 million in early 2011.
The listing agent representing the sellers for each purchase: Robert De Niro's son Raphael.
Speaking by phone to THR on Aug. 20, the elder De Niro says he "was aware" that his son had dealt with Low on property sales in New York, although he asserts that he didn't know how their relationship had come about.
Both New York properties are alleged to have been purchased using diverted 1MDB funds and now are facing seizure by the feds, with the Park Laurel apartment having been flipped in late 2012 to Riza Aziz — Razak's stepson (Mansor's son), another "relevant individual" in the DOJ's filing and the co-founder of Red Granite, which produced The Wolf of Wall Street.
De Niro also confirms to THR he knew Razak and Mansor, having met them "a couple of times," adding that there had been early talks for him to star in one of Aziz's films at Red Granite. "But it never happened."
The Oscar winner also says he met Low at a notoriously expensive A-list birthday party the Malaysian threw for himself in Las Vegas in 2012 and that Low initially had been interested in funding The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's long-gestating thriller in which De Niro is set to star, now moving ahead with STX. "But that was just talk and a long time ago," he adds.
De Niro's links to Low don't stop with a birthday party, however.
According to the Jynwel Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Low's personal Jynwel Capital investment fund (which is itself accused by the DOJ of being used to make property investments in the U.S. via diverted 1MDB funds), it donated money to De Niro's Tribeca Film Institute, specifically the Tribeca Teaches program.
A spokesperson for the Tribeca Film Institute tells THR it does not comment on individual contributions, but doesn't deny that the Jynwel Foundation had made a donation. Meanwhile, De Niro says he "didn't know" how much Low's organization had contributed.
A donation to Tribeca Teaches wouldn't be unusual for Low, who has a habit of offering expensive gifts to the charitable organizations of his celebrity friends. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has received several donations from Low, including a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture that was auctioned last year, while Alicia Keys' Keep a Child Alive charity also has benefitted, with Low underwriting its annual Black Ball fundraiser in New York.
When asked what his response would be should the Tribeca Film Institute be found to have accepted corrupt money via Low, De Niro is suitably direct: "What do you think?" he says, adding that he would aim to pay it back.
But when THR inquired about his link to the 1MDB scandal and those involved, De Niro is less enthused to speak out. "I don't care whether my name is associated with it. I didn't do anything," he says. "I'm aware of it, but I don't give a shit. When I have to tell something to somebody, I'll answer to them and that will be it."
As for the property sales, a spokesperson for Raphael De Niro's company, Douglas Elliman Real Estate, tells THR "nobody had any idea" Low's funds "were illegitimate," adding that brokers are "not required to vet the legitimacy of finances of buyers/sellers." The firm didn't respond when asked if it would return any fees or commissions earned from the two sales.
But while quietly paying back any alleged 1MDB money received is one thing, voices from panic-stricken Malaysia, where Razak's government has moved to contain any criticism in the wake of the DOJ filing, are calling for the A-list names connected to the scandal — inadvertently or not — to voice their condemnation.
"It's not just a mere moral imperative; I would expect them to follow through. There's no excuse to avoid being implicated or absolving themselves," says Nurul Izzah Anwar, a member of Malaysia's parliament and daughter of jailed opposition leader and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
"Initially you can say that you were not privy to the details," she adds. "But right now it necessitates quick action, quick recourse on their part. And it begins with a clear-cut denunciation of any wrongdoing and any persons who have been implicated in this whole sordid, kleptocratic episode."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.