(Adds detail from filings, comment from Jho Low)
By Joel Schectman and A. Ananthalakshmi
WASHINGTON/KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has taken legal action to recover an additional half a billion dollars in assets stolen from an investment fund established by Malaysia’s prime minister, bringing the total claims to more than $1.7 billion.
The assets include a Picasso painting given to actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the rights to two Hollywood films, the department said.
The filing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles was the Justice Department’s latest step in a long-running case over an alleged conspiracy to launder money misappropriated from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB, which was set up by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009 to promote economic development.
In the complaints, which are all civil actions, the Justice Department alleged that more than $4.5 billion was taken from 1MDB by high-level fund officials and their associates.
“We simply will not allow the United States to be a place where corrupt individuals can expect to hide assets and lavishly spend money that should be used for the benefit of citizens of other nations,” Kenneth Blanco, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement on Thursday.
1MDB said on Friday that it is not a party to the civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and had never been contacted in relation to the case.
Najib has denied taking money from 1MDB or any other entity for personal gain, after it was reported that investigators traced nearly $700 million to bank accounts that were allegedly in his name.
In response to the latest lawsuit, a spokesman for Najib said the lawsuits raised concerns about “the unnecessary and gratuitous naming of certain matters and individuals that are only relevant to domestic political manipulation and interference”.
“This suggests a motivation that goes beyond the objective of seizing assets,” Najib’s press secretary, Tengku Sariffuddin, said in a statement, adding that unproven allegations should not be taken as fact.
Malaysia attorney general’s office said in an emailed statement that Malaysian authorities had discovered no crime committed by anyone at the fund.
The latest lawsuit comes as Najib prepares for a elections, which sources say he hopes to call in the second half of the year to cement his position following a purge of dissenters within his party.
He has dismissed calls from opponents and activists to step down and make way for a full inquiry into the scandal. An investigation by Malaysia’s top attorney found no wrongdoing by Najib.
U.S. authorities, in civil complaints, have accused Malaysian financier Jho Low of laundering more than $400 million stolen from 1MDB through an account in the United States, where he lavished his associates, including DiCaprio, with money to gamble and luxury goods.
U.S. authorities have not charged Low with any crime.
Authorities said that in 2014, Low used $3.2 million diverted from a 1MDB bond sale to buy a Picasso painting for DiCaprio. “Dear Leonardo DiCaprio, Happy belated Birthday! This gift is for you,” a friend of Low’s wrote in a note.
DiCaprio has not been accused of any crime.
A spokesman for DiCaprio on Thursday said that the actor had recently begun proceedings to transfer ownership of the Picasso to the U.S. government.
The spokesman said that DiCaprio in July 2016 had “initiated the return” of gifts he had received from financiers connected to the 1MDB case after authorities made allegations against people involved in financing the 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which starred DiCaprio.
It is one of three Hollywood films that the Justice Department says were funded with tens of millions of dollars stolen from 1MDB by Jho Low.
The spokesman said that DiCaprio had accepted the gifts to raise funds in an auction for his environmental foundation.
The three films were produced by Red Granite, which was founded by Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz. The other two films are “Dumb and Dumber To,” a 2014 comedy starring Jim Carrey, and the 2015 film “Daddy’s Home” starring Will Ferrell.
The Justice Department’s filing on Thursday seeks the rights to those films, after moving last year to seize rights to “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Red Granite said in a statement it was in discussions with the Justice Department “aimed at resolving these civil cases and is fully cooperating.”
DiCaprio’s spokesman also said that the actor had returned an Oscar won by actor Marlon Brando that was given to him by Red Granite “to thank him for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street.”
DiCaprio’s charitable foundation last October said that any gifts or donations made to the actor or his ventures would be returned if they were found to have come from 1MDB.
The Justice Department filing on Thursday also alleged that Low also used $9.2 million diverted from 1MDB bond sales to buy a collage made by New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that was also given to DiCaprio.
DiCaprio and Low signed a note in March 2014 absolving the star of “any liability whatsoever resulting directly or indirectly from these art-work,” according to the filings.
Low, in an emailed statement sent via a representative, said the Justice Department (DOJ) continued its “inappropriate efforts” to seize assets.
“This week’s activity from the DOJ is a further example of global overreach in pursuit of a deeply flawed case,” Low said.
Rasky Partners, a public relations firm that emailed his statement, could not be immediately reached by phone.
Other purchases with the misappropriated funds included a yacht and jewelry worth $200 million purchased from various companies around the world. Nearly $30 million of those funds was used to buy jewelry for Najib’s wife, according to the U.S. Justice Department filing.
An aide to the prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, did not respond to requests for comment.
Fraud allegations against 1MDB go back to 2009, the Justice Department said, and the fund is subject to money laundering investigations in at least six countries, including Switzerland and Singapore. (Additional reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Leslie Adler and Robert Birsel)