SINGAPORE: Former private banker Yeo Jiawei quit his job at Swiss bank BSI to work for Malaysian tycoon Low Taek Jho, who is accused of siphoning billions from Malaysia's scandal-hit state fund 1MDB, it emerged in court on Tuesday (Nov 1).
Prosecutors allege it was this relationship with Mr Low, better known as Jho Low, that prompted Yeo to tamper with key witnesses in Singapore’s probe into illicit transactions linked to 1MDB.
Yeo, 33, is on trial over four charges for perverting the course of justice by allegedly urging witnesses to lie to police and destroy evidence. Other charges for money laundering, cheating and forgery will be dealt with in a separate trial in April next year.
Prosecutors said on Monday that Yeo played a central role in the largest and most sophisticated money laundering case handled by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), and that he pocketed S$26 million.
“SECRET PROFITS”, SHELL COMPANIES AND 1MDB
Mr Kevin Michael Swampillai, Yeo’s former boss at BSI, testified for the prosecution on Tuesday.
The 52-year-old Malaysian was candid in his testimony - he admitted he was involved in illicit transactions beside Yeo, and praised him for being “very, very good at his job”.
They shared a “pretty close, quite strong” working relationship “based on mutual respect”, he said.
They also shared a desire for a cut from millions the bank and fund management company were raking in from a particular BSI client.
Mr Swampillai - who was suspended from BSI and is now unemployed - sang Yeo’s praises even as he gave details of how the pair made millions in “secret profits” at their employer’s expense.
It was Yeo who came up with the idea, he said.
The men set up shell companies Bridge Partners International Management and Bridge Global Managers to receive the “secret profits”, which were then channelled to companies owned by Yeo and Mr Swampillai - Bridgerock Investment and GTB Investment respectively.
The men pocketed about US$5 million (S$6.95 million) apiece from the “financial collaboration”, as Mr Swampillai put it.
The secret profits came from the pair’s dealings with a particular BSI client “with political status”, Mr Swampillai said.
(Chart: Court exhibit)
He later admitted the involvement of Jho Low, whose personal banker Yak Yew Chee, a former BSI employee, presided over all their meetings. Yak tightly controlled access to his clients - Mr Low, 1MDB and SRC - Mr Swampillai said.
He was referring to SRC International, a Malaysian state-owned firm set up by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who also set up 1MDB.
Yak was charged in October for his involvement in the scandal. Mr Swampillai has not been charged.
YEO LIVED THE HIGH LIFE WORKING FOR JHO LOW
Mr Swampillai also shed light on Yeo’s relationship with Mr Low. At BSI, Yeo “spent a considerable amount of his time with (Yak), by virtue of (Yak’s) client”, he said.
Shortly before Yeo left BSI in mid-2014, he told Mr Swampillai that Mr Low had offered him a job. “He asked my opinion as to whether he should (take it),” Mr Swampillai said.
“I would say he left for what he thought was a better opportunity - the fact that (Yeo) was going to work with Low, who ... had some kind of quasi-celebrity status ... (and was closing) big investment deals around the world. To the casual observer ... he had a certain appeal for anyone who might actually end up working for him, because he would then be exposed to that kind of lifestyle and experience that Low was associated with,” he said.
Mr Swampillai said Yeo flaunted his connection with Mr Low; he sent his former boss a picture of Mr Low working in his private jet and boasted about attending a boxing match in Las Vegas.
Photo of Jho Low in his private jet. Yeo took this and sent it to Mr Swampillai. (Photo: Court exhibit)
ALIGNING THEIR STORIES
When the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the CAD launched a money laundering investigation in 2015 and he was picked up for questioning, Yeo became paranoid, Mr Swampillai said.
Yeo was eventually arrested in March 2016 on suspicion of money laundering, though he was granted bail a day later.
He set up a late-night meeting with Mr Swampillai at the Swiss Club in Singapore on Mar 27. They needed to “align their stories”, Mr Swampillai said, as they knew “the threat of discovery (of the illicit transactions) was very real”.
They were joined by Mr Samuel Goh Sze-Wei, who acted as an intermediary and helped the men facilitate the transactions between Bridge Partners International Management, Bridge Global Managers, Bridgerock Investment and GTB Investment.
“We had all been implicated,” Mr Swampillai said. All three had been questioned by the CAD and were desperate to keep the illicit transactions under wraps.
PLAYING POKER WITH THE CAD
They hatched a plan to tell the CAD the monies moved into Bridgerock Investment and GTB Investment belonged to Mr Goh, and that Yeo and Mr Swampillai were merely managing his investments for him.
Yeo told them to “play poker” with the CAD, and not to give the game up so easily. But Mr Swampillai sold him out.
“I was sceptical. I never fully invested in the plan. I never quite believed in it, I didn’t think it would work. (There were) too many holes in the story,” he said.
When he was brought in for questioning a few days after the meeting, Mr Swampillai said he decided to “take an open and honest approach” instead.
While they were being investigated, Yeo and Mr Swampillai kept in touch to exchange information about what the CAD was asking of each of them. This way, they were able to “keep tabs” on the progress of the investigation, Mr Swampillai said.
They kept in touch using pre-paid SIM cards - which could not be traced to them - or via Telegram, which has an auto-delete function so their text messages could not be monitored.
They also developed what Mr Swampillai called a “ping system” to let each other know they had not been “picked up” again by the CAD. “We gave each other a missed call at the beginning of each day. So if I ‘pinged’ Yeo and he didn’t respond, it would be a sign that he had been picked up by the CAD.”
Yeo also told Mr Swampillai to destroy evidence of the incorporation of their shell companies, which he did.
The trial continues on Wednesday. Mr Swampillai will take the stand again.