In 1MDB trial, ex-banker tells High Court she didn't think Najib's account would be used for money-laundering

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 7 — A former bank officer at AmBank never thought that then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's private bank account would be used to launder illegal funds, the High Court heard today.

Testifying for the prosecution, AmBank's former relationship manager Joanna Yu explained that she believed it was Najib's wish to keep his personal bank accounts confidential.

Yu said Low Taek Jho — now a fugitive who had helped make sure cheques issued from Najib's accounts do not bounce due to insufficient funds — had also stressed that Najib's name should not be revealed as the owner of the bank accounts.

Yu is the 41st prosecution witness in Najib's trial over more than RM2.28 billion of funds misappropriated from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), with this sum of money alleged to have entered Najib's AmBank accounts.

She was asked by Najib's lead defence lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah why she had given suggestions to avoid scrutiny by the Wells Fargo Bank on incoming funds worth US$15 million to Najib's account.

Yu said she did it as Low said had told her, “don't disclose PM's name”.

Yu explained that the Wells Fargo Bank had previously made a phone call to AmBank's compliance team to ask about the name of the account holder when US dollars were sent to Najib's AmBank account.

She confirmed this was why she had suggested to Low in BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) messages in May 2014 for US$15 million to be sent in the form of British pound sterling to Najib's AmBank account.

Shafee put it to Yu that by suggesting another currency to prevent queries on Najib's account, she was participating in money-laundering offences.

But Yu believed her actions were to protect Najib's confidentiality.

“It was my belief that this was to protect the confidentiality of the account holder. At that time, he said, you never know somebody will use PM's name and come up with something, so he said, we have to protect PM's name,” she replied.

Shafee then asked whether she had believed “wholesale" what Low said as an experienced banker, and Yu confirmed she did.

Shafee also asked whether in hindsight she realised she had assisted Low in money-laundering offences.

“I believe it was the request of Datuk Seri to be kept confidential so I...” she replied before Shafee jumped in with another question.

Shafee: You mean it never crossed your mind that this could be the money laundering issue?

Yu: This is PM's account, the PM of Malaysia.

Shafee: But the money didn't come from PM, it came from outside.

Yu: For PM's account, it didn't strike me anybody would use the PM's account, I mean, to do money laundering. This is the PM of Malaysia.

When Shafee pressed her by asking whether she did not think Low could be doing money laundering just because the funds went through the prime minister's account, Yu said she did not think so as she believed Najib's accounts were already being monitored.

“No, because this account was informed to Bank Negara and people in compliance, everybody was watching this account, this account was known to the higher levels,” Yu said.

Yu agreed that the need to maintain client's confidentiality does not remove her duty as a banker in relation to money laundering as it is a strict instruction from Bank Negara Malaysia.

Former AmBank manager Joanna Yu is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex February 2, 2023.  ― Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Former AmBank manager Joanna Yu is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex February 2, 2023. ― Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Former AmBank manager Joanna Yu is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex February 2, 2023. ― Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Earlier, Shafee suggested that if Najib’s name had been disclosed officially, there would have been an earlier discovery of what Low was doing and where he was taking the money from, “instead of a nation going through hell”.

But Yu said AmBank just followed instructions to keep Najib’s account details confidential. She also explained that AmBank’s compliance department did not disclose Najib’s name as Wells Fargo had only inquired verbally through a phone call, and that the name would have been disclosed if the latter had made an official query in writing.

Shafee suggested that Yu is now aware in hindsight that if the information regarding Najib's accounts had been released, the whole issue of whether the money that came in was “kosher" or legitimate would have been made known a lot earlier and the prime minister would have been “protected” rather than harmed.

Pressed that she “would have protected your own PM, the account holder”, Yu replied: “I believe he was being kept informed, cheques were being issued, credit cards were being used, I took it that he knew what was happening.”

But Shafee insisted that Najib believed the funds that came into his personal accounts were from Saudi donations.

He suggested that Najib had at times issued cheques when the accounts had insufficient funds which indicated that the prime minister never knew his account had been depleted of funds.

Yu said she could not comment on how Najib's accounts were being managed, but later agreed it was possible Najib never knew the state of his accounts.

Shafee said the whole issue would not have risen if no one topped up cash into Najib's account, as he would have realised there was no more purported “donation money” in his account if the cheques he had issued had bounced.

Previously, the High Court had heard of BBM conversations between Yu and Low, where she had alerted him when Najib's cheques were issued from accounts that had insufficient funds and where Low had made arrangements for additional funds to be pumped into Najib's accounts to ensure the cheques did not bounce.

Today, Yu confirmed that both Low and Najib's authorised account handler Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil have told her to ensure that Najib's cheques do not bounce.

“For prime minister's cheques to be bounced, we were told, I believe, it was something very devastating to have newspapers report PM's cheque bounced,” she said, stressing that she was told to be very careful about safeguarding the reputation of the prime minister of Malaysia.

Shafee then claimed that it was people like Yu who have perpetrated and assisted in the fraud allegedly committed by Low.

But Yu replied: “We believe it was protecting the prime minister.”

Referring to Najib who was sitting as an accused person in the dock, Shafee shot back with a remark: “If you were protecting the prime minister, I don’t know why he’s there.”

In the afternoon, Yu agreed that Najib could have just transferred money between his three AmBank accounts instead of depositing cash, whenever any were overdrawn.

But she also explained that Nik Faisal had provided AmBank with a single letter to say there would be cash deposits into Najib’s accounts whenever there is a shortfall in funds to cover outgoing payments and there is no time to transfer or remit money.

Yu said AmBank asked for Najib’s accounts to be closed due to how frequent his cheques came close to being dishonoured due to insufficient funds and because he is a politically exposed person (PEP). PEPs are a category of high-risk customers under anti-money laundering measures.

Yu questioned why cheques were being issued from Najib’s accounts that lacked sufficient funds when there were enough funds in another account of his instead.

She agreed that it could because Najib had the three AmBank accounts but did not know all their states, or that he did not know exactly how much funds he possessed.

Asked why Low was running “helter skelter” to make sure all of Najib’s cheques did not bounce, Yu said she felt it was due to the resulting “negative impact” that will arise if Najib’s cheques were not honoured due to insufficient funds as he is the prime minister. She said it would also be “embarrassing” for the prime minister if his cheques bounced.

She confirmed that banks would usually close down bank accounts if cheques have bounced once or twice, but confirmed that none of Najib’s cheques issued from his AmBank accounts had bounced.

Yu confirmed she had in the past alerted Low, who made arrangements to have the necessary amount of cash deposited into Najib’s accounts before the cheque clearing deadline — usually by 3pm on the same day — to make sure the shortfall of money is covered and to ensure that the cheques do not bounce.

Asked by Shafee to confirm that “Jho Low has never allowed one cheque to bounce”, Yu replied: “Not that I’m aware of”.

Earlier this morning, Yu confirmed she was surprised that Low had told the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) that he had never been authorised by Najib to manage his bank accounts, as it contradicted what he had told her in the past.

“Because on many occasions, he gave me the understanding that he was acting on behalf - for Datuk Seri Najib,” she said.

Najib’s 1MDB trial before judge Datuk Collin Lawrence Sequerah resumes tomorrow morning.

Shafee said he expects to be able to complete cross-examining Yu by tomorrow morning, with the prosecution then expected to re-examine her before she completes her testimony in court.

Yu started testifying in this trial on October 13, and has spent 11 days in the witness stand so far.