Although she lives in London, Clare Rewcastle Brown knows all too much about Las Vegas, Nevada. She’s not a professional poker player or an Elvis impersonator aficionado — for the past few years she has been reporting on the lavish parties thrown by a Malaysian financier using money earmarked for much-needed infrastructure in the southeastern Asian country.
In 2010, she began the Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak to report on deforestation in the Sarawak region of Malaysia. While her initial intention was to expose corruption she saw on the local level, she followed the money all the way up to the then prime minister of Malaysia Najib Razak. In her address to attendees at the 29th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference in Las Vegas, Brown highlighted her history with the city.
As she was investigating corruption and bribery, her focus shifted to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a Malaysian state fund that reportedly had garnered billions in investment; however no development projects were to be seen. At the same time, one name kept popping up in party circuits in Las Vegas — Jho Low. Low was a financier tied closely to 1MDB and happened to be a close friend of Najib’s stepson, Riza.
“In 2014, there was already widespread suspicion in opposition circles [about where the money was going],” said Brown. She began publishing stories about the lavish, celebrity-filled parties Low was throwing in clubs and raising questions about where he was getting the money. “I kept catching them in the lies while they kept spending the money.”
She shared highlights of Low’s 30th birthday party: the Las Vegas-based bash took place in November 2012 and reportedly included guests ranging from actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Benicio del Toro to Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears. According to Brown, Low often showered his celebrity friends with lavish gifts and experiences. “[Low] would pay Leo $500,000 a time to come hang out with him in Vegas to play the tables,” explained Brown.
As Brown continued her reports on Low’s expenditures, she was also able to trace hundreds of millions transferred from 1MDB into Najib’s personal bank account. Shortly after, Najib fired his attorney general, who had begun investigating the money transfer, as well as a number of other high-ranking cabinet officers. “How did Najib get away with it? The answer lies in the over-centralization of power and lack of transparency,” said Brown. “It was a situation of unchecked power.”
In May 2018 Najib was unseated in a historic election, in part due to Brown’s dogged reporting on what she called the “heist of a century.” “That was the power of reporting. We turned the tide,” she said. She also thanked attendees for their work in exposing fraud. “You and the global investigators who took up this scandal played a crucial role.”