Law firms are quick to insist that media engage with their own demands, however questions by Sarawak Report to Jho Low’s law firms Kobre & Kim and also Schillings remain unacknowledged.
Public filings due in the United States have not been updated by the law firm since December 2020. It has neither registered that it has ceased to represent the fugitive from justice nor has it submitted requisite six month updates on work done and payments received.
However, that last submission under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) confirmed that following Jho Low’s settlement in October 2019 surrendering his stolen assets to the Department of Justice, the US law firm continued to manage his PR and online media for at least the next 12 months.
From May till October 2020 they received just over $2 million through one of Jho’s money laundering collaborators, Phengphian Laogumnerd, and as of December 2020 they registered that the client relationship had not been terminated. Indeed, the website www.jho-low.com which was one of the services the law firm registered it was performing at that time continued to be online (it is now removed).
It leaves the question wide open as to whether the New York based firm is still receiving millions from Jho Low and where the money is coming from? What due diligence has been done by the firm and ought legal firms be more strictly regulated in this regard following a string of scandals including this one?
Last week in the UK as oligarchs moved into the news spotlight a Conservative MP, Bob Seely, joined numerous cross-party voices in denouncing several London law firms for the role they play providing professional services to the often criminal super-rich.
These often cross-Atlantic firms have rushed to develop whole departments grovelingly dedicated to the ‘360º needs’ of their most prized UHNWI (Ultra High Net Worth Individual) clients, many of whom are inevitably low grade crooks and thugs, or Russian oligarchs belatedly facing comeuppance following the Ukraine invasion.
Amongst such services is so-called ‘reputation management’, criticised as reputation laundering, which includes issuing threats to silence journalists and remove information from the internet by launching highly expensive legal action designed to ruin the defendant whether the claim was true or not. Sparking increasing controversy wealthy litigants write off the costs as a business expense.
However, Bob Seely pointed to the fact that such firms are not just catering to the legal aspects of such cases. Their 360º services have developed into what he described as a “One Stop Corruption Shop” whereby law firms have begun to engage other actors to perform a multitude of tasks, including PR and private investigation on behalf of their often barely vetted clients.
The concern therefore is that funds which banks will no longer touch are being channelled under legal privilege instead. One such case study to emerge, of course, has been that of Jho Low and his 1MDB loot.
Following heightened concerns after Putin’s interference in the US election campaign of 2016 it has been reported that law firms in the US started to take the new precaution of registering clients for whom they had been channelling funds towards PR and related services in the FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act). Those filings are publicly accessible.
Lawyers themselves have extensive privileges in their dealing with clients which include secrecy. However, that this has plainly been abused was already shown after it emerged some firms allowed their client accounts to facilitate his 1MDB money laundering through the purchases of property and valuables…. nothing to do with his legal representation.
Another grey area was Jho’s use of the same channel to purchase so-called ‘reputation services’ (ie PR support) from companies whom he could not pay directly through the banking system while on the run as a known fugitive. By 2018 law firms, including the heavyweight Kobre & Kim, plainly decided to at least register such transactions given that PR for foreigners very firmly comes under the FARA transparency rules.
However, the entries made by Jho Low’s lawyer Robin Rathmell, a partner at the firm, raise their own concerns. The 2018 filing by Kobre & Kim relating to their ‘Foreign Principle’ Jho Low shows that the fugitive, who was fighting to claw back around a billion dollars worth of confiscated assets, was paying a swathe of crisis PR companies throughout that year for media services whilst at the same time threatening legal action against journalists trying to write about him.
These included a top firm in Washington PRCG Haggerty which obtained a retainer of $100,000 a month plus expenses through Kobre & Kim. A parallel contract (likewise signed by the partner Robin Rathmell) paid another outfit Marathon Strategies $35,000 per month for media relations services and $20,000 per month for digital services.
Yet another US PR company, Fiveblocks, was simultaneously signed up by Rathmell for a further $70,000 a month under yet another proposal termed “Digital Reputation Management for Jho Low and associations” dated the same August 2018.
Meanwhile, over in London the well-known PR company Phill Hall Associates signed yet another agreement with Rathmell (who is a British lawyer practicing in the states) in October. Kobre & Kim were at the same time funnelling large sums to the London based libel specialists Schillings, which in turn started to issue unprecedented threats against the publishers of the book The Sarawak Report and also of Billion Dollar Whale even in advance of publication. In an unheard of move the law firm wrote to every bookshop in Britain threatening legal action against any that attempted to sell these books.
Yet in its FARA filings at that time the law firm consistently denied that Jho Low was a political actor in any way. Despite the fugitive having long since been revealed by the Department of Justice as the frontman for the recently deposed prime minister Najib Razak, Rathmell answered in the negative to a list of questions asking if Jho Low was supervised, controlled, financed or subsidised by a foreign government, political party or principal. Instead, he wrote that “The foreign principal [Jho Low] identifies himself as a global philanthropist, investor and entrepreneur”.
In fact, by the time of these filings in 2018 people around the world were well aware about Jho Low’s connections to politically exposed figures and corporations in Malaysia and beyond.
The other problem about this filing was that it failed to mention where the money to pay Kobre & Kim and through them the fleet of PR, reputation law firms and lobbying companies working for Jho Low was originating from. To begin with the filings merely referred to anonymous third party benefactors as footing the bill and it was only after Sarawak Report exposed how the son of the Kuwait prime minister Sheikh Sabah was paying Jho’s bills out of stolen Malaysian money that Kobre & Kim registered that Sabah and another of Jho’s associates, Phengphian Laogumnerd, were fronting the payments.
Despite these politically exposed funders, when the following year Kobre & Kim took on yet two more separate PR firms, Reevemark LLC (from February) and Levick Strategic Communications (from June) any political connections on the part of Jho continued to be denied. The Reevemark compensation deal for conducting PR for Jho Low was a staggering $125,000 a month – money that had of course been filched directly or indirectly from the corruption surrounding 1MDB and then passed through the law firm.
Moving on, during the 6 month period ending 30 Oct 2019 the UK based law firm Schillings earned a further half a million dollars, paid to their US office in six tranches by Kobre & Kim for services to Jho Low that the law firm reports as having included advising on press releases “informing public opinion in the United States relating to the foreign principle [Jho Low], Malaysian rule of law and Malaysian government”.
It is fair to assume from the above that the work included casting doubt on the integrity of the elected PH government that overthrew the corrupted Najib/UMNO regime and brought the perpetrators of 1MDB to account.
Jho Low reached his settlement with the US authorities in October 2019 in which he surrendered the frozen assets, as effective acknowledgement of the guilt on his part relating to his boss Najib’s own charges and later conviction in Malaysia for thieving from 1MDB.
However, the law firm Kobre & Kim continued to service their Malaysian client, according to their filings, despite being indirectly paid by the dubious third party intermediaries exposed by Sarawak Report from May of 2020.
In late December 2020 the firm submitted a FARA filing indicating that the law firm itself was now directly maintaining the (now defunct) PR website for Jho Low in which they were questioning the integrity of the new Malaysian government and the Malaysian legal process. Had the alleged ‘one stop shop’ even been brought in-house as the swathe of PR companies started to abandon this notorious client? The firm has not acknowledged Sarawak Report’s emails or queries on such matters.
For the above activity K&K received just under a quarter of a million dollars in May 2020 alone from Jho’s well-known side-kick, the Thai playboy Phengphian Laogumnerd whom Sarawak Report had first flagged up as a potential bad actor as long ago as 2017.
In June Mr Laogumnerd’s payments rose to just under half a million dollars. In July it was around two hundred thousand and in August a staggering $763 thousand dollars. In total for that quarter Laogumnerd had paid Kobre & Kim US $1,626,540.06 for their work for Jho Low. The payments carried on through the autumn resulting in a total of just over two million dollars by the end of October 2020 for just that six month period alone.
It is therefore clear that for a full year after Jho Low was seeking legal representation for his unsuccessful battle against the US Department of Justice (for which he had been allowed $15 million to cover his legal expenses) the fugitive was still funnelling cash to pay Kobre & Kim to fund PR and engage companies around the globe. Levick Communications registered with FARA that they only terminated their own contract as from January 2021.
Therefore, the question is on what grounds did Kobre & Kim continue to represent Jho Low beyond the settlement of his case and whether they continue to do so as Sarawak Report has reason to believe?
If so, how is the company continuing to be paid and what due diligence has it placed on the source of money to pay such services for the world’s most wanted financial fugitive? Such cases have raised concerns about the role law firms increasingly play in facilitating wealthy criminals without being subject to the same duties of due diligence as, for example, the financial sector.
The mantra is that everyone is due their sacred right to legal representation, but is it being abused?
Reputation law firms pursuing litigation on behalf of wealthy clients invariably claim they act on the principle that everyone is entitled to legal representation, conflating the principle that applies to a defendant facing prosecution by the state with the civil actions designed to control what is written by the media.
It is a false analogy on several fronts, not least because only the super wealthy are in a position to sue over such matters as defamation, privacy, copyright and the remainder of the reputation tool kit, whilst the vast majority of people are denied the same resources because they simply can’t afford them.
Given that the the ability to sue over reputation is by no means an agreed universal right the question over how such cases are funded and indeed the broader work undertaken for all such clients is of clear public concern. Investigations by Sarawak Report, now supported by the findings of authorities across the world, have long since made it perfectly clear that all the money poured into the law firms, public relations companies and private investigators hired by Jho Low was the product of money laundering.
Both Laogumnerd and Sheikh Sabah have been exposed for their role in laundering stolen Malaysian money so it is reasonable to ask what due diligence law firms undertake when receiving money on behalf of clients and whether, as with banks, those rules ought to be enhanced.
Sarawak Report has written to Robin Rathmell and colleagues at Kobre & Kim to ask 1) if the firm has a comment to make on the MP Bob Seeley’s description of reputation law firms as a ‘one stop corruption shop’. 2) If it was justified for the legal firm to continue to conduct PR services for a globally notorious thief after his case was settled and what due diligence the firm conducted into the origin of the money with which he was paying it? 3) Whether greater due diligence is required by lawyers when vetting client money? 4) Whether the principle that everyone has a right to legal support stands up to scrutiny when it comes to litigation against journalists involving clients with dubious sources of cash? 5) whether Jho Low remains a client? If he does not remain a client why has the firm has not registered the termination under FARA filings and if he remains a client why the firm has not continued to submit the required six monthly information sheets? 6) If Jho Low remains a client can the company detail what services it is performing and what precautions are being taken to ensure that the money he pays with does not continue to be the product of the money laundering of thefts from the Malaysian people?
We have yet to receive an acknowledgement of our communication.