Goldman’s Most Notorious Banker Turns Star Witness in 1MDB Trial

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Almost four years after pleading guilty for his role in the 1MDB scandal, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s former Southeast Asia chairman, Tim Leissner, is about to speak publicly for the first time. 

Leissner is expected to be the star witness in the U.S. government’s case against his former subordinate Roger Ng, the only Goldman banker to go on trial for the multibillion-dollar bribery scheme. Opening statements are scheduled to begin Monday in Brooklyn. Each man faces the possibility of decades in prison for their work together.

Leissner pleaded guilty in August 2018 to a count of conspiracy to violate U.S. anti-bribery laws and to conspiring to launder money. He was ordered to forfeit $44 million. Goldman paid $5 billion in fines and apologized for breaking the law. 

Ng, however, has chosen to fight the case against him. His lawyers have cast him as Leissner’s deputy, a bookish banker who was the first to warn Goldman compliance about Malaysian financier Jho Low. 

The trial will once again cast an uncomfortable spotlight on Wall Street’s most influential bank, which has failed to wash off the stain from its nefarious role in the scandal. The Ng-vs-Leissner show marks the first public examination in the U.S. of the part played by Goldman Sachs bankers in enabling a historic loot that shocked in its reach and chutzpah.

Goldman had hoped the $5 billion in penalties it’s been forced to pay was enough to quash further scrutiny. Instead, executives there are keeping a wary eye on proceedings in a Brooklyn courtroom. Their only hope: the fallout from this latest airing of its Malaysia dealings doesn’t radiate beyond the ex-employees, who’d already been cast aside as profit-chasing bankers gone rogue.

Leissner, the more flamboyant face of the scandal, is likely to spend several days on the stand. Prosecutors will use his testimony to try to show that Ng played a critical role in the scheme. 

The last time Leissner spoke publicly was when he pleaded guilty. A chastened Leissner, reading from a prepared statement, told the court he and unnamed colleagues concealed from his employer that Jho Low was involved in one of the bond deals and was paying bribes and kickbacks. 

“I knew that this was contrary to Goldman Sachs’ stated policies and procedures,” he told the judge in Brooklyn. 

Leissner hasn’t been sentenced yet and is free on $20 million bond. His guilty plea and cooperation in the case against Ng are meant to reduce his sentence, which is likely to be announced later this year.

Before his fall from grace, Leissner had lived a golden life as a Goldman executive -- he rubbed elbows with heads of state, he made millions, he married famous former model Kimora Lee Simmons. The 52-year-old German national was the kind of banker who seemed to know everybody. He embodied the Wall Street alchemy that transforms proximity to power into money. 

His father was a Volkswagen AG executive in Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War before stints in Mexico and China. Leissner graduated from Germany’s University of Siegen and got an MBA from the University of Hartford in Connecticut in 1992. He joined Goldman in 1998 and became chief of staff to Richard Gnodde, president of the bank’s Asia operations and now head of the bank’s international business. By 2006, Leissner was named a partner and in 2014 he became the firm’s Southeast Asia chairman. 

Read More: The Rise and Fall of Tim Leissner, Goldman’s Big Man in Malaysia

Prior to Simmons, Leissner was married to Judy Chan, a former analyst at Goldman whose father ran a coal-mining business in China. Their wedding feast included suckling pigs with electric lights flashing in their eye sockets. Chan would later become a successful vintner, running Grace Vineyard, China’s first family-owned winery.

Leissner met Simmons, a reality show star and head of a fashion company, in the business-class section of a flight from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. The encounter began with an argument and ended with a marriage proposal, they told the Wall Street Journal. They were wed in 2014 and his wife’s social-media accounts showed the couple’s jet-set life, from yachts in the Caribbean to meeting the king and queen of Malaysia. 

Meanwhile, Leissner’s business was blossoming -- he was an early adviser to 1 Malaysia Development Bhd., a fund created to pursue investment and development projects for the economic benefit of Malaysia and its people. Over two years, Goldman made around $600 million working on three bond sales that raised $6.5 billion for 1MDB, dwarfing what banks typically earn from government deals. Those bond deals and others helped Leissner get “large year-end bonuses” from Goldman, according to the U.S. government. 

But U.S. authorities said Leissner was using bribes and kickbacks to get and retain 1MDB’s business, and that he embezzled from the fund for himself and others. More than $2.7 billion of the $6.5 billion raised was misappropriated, according to court filings

Between mid-2012 and late 2014, “more than $200 million of the proceeds of the three 1MDB bonds and other 1MDB business was transferred” to accounts controlled by Leissner and a co-conspirator, the U.S. government said.  

Problems came to light when $681 million showed up in the personal bank accounts of Malaysia’s prime minister, triggering investigations. Goldman put Leissner on leave in January 2016, and he resigned soon after. 

Leissner largely dropped out of view, occasionally popping up in photos posted by Simmons or one of her children. The couple have a son, Wolfe, who was born in 2015.

For a time, he lived with Simmons in an $11 million mansion in Los Angeles. That house was sold last year, but Leissner continues to live in Los Angeles. One magazine reported in 2020 that he was spotted “canoodling” with another woman. Simmons and Leissner have separated, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is private.  

He and his estranged wife are still united in fighting a court battle in Los Angeles against her ex-husband, Russell Simmons, co-founder of hip hop label Def Jam Records. Simmons sued them in May 2021, alleging they used his shares in a fitness drink company they jointly owned as security for Leissner’s bond. Simmons wants the stock in Celsius Holdings Inc. returned, as well as damages. 

Leissner’s lawyers argue Simmons didn’t “loan” the Celsius shares to them but they had already been sold by the time the couple posted them as collateral. Both Leissner and Kimora Lee have filed motions arguing Simmons’s claims should be dismissed.

“The allegations brought by Russell against Kimora are patently false and we look forward to a successful conclusion in court” said David Willingham, a lawyer for Kimora Lee Simmons.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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