Xavier Justo: The Man Who Got Tangled Up in 1MDB
Xavier Justo is happily drinking a beer at 10am, as we meet at the lobby lounge of the Shangri-La Hotel for our interview. Even though it is early, it seems like he has already had a long day and needed to relax amidst a harried schedule of back-to-back meetings and press interviews. As evidenced by the slew of articles that were published after his whirlwind trip to KL, this is a man bursting to speak of his experiences and role in the financial scandal that was 1MDB.
Xavier Justo is the son of Spanish immigrants to Switzerland, whose surname literally means “fair or just” in Spanish. Hence, it is no small irony that he booked a place in Malaysian history when he inadvertently found himself a card-carrying member of Clare Rewcastle Brown’s “Justice League”.
In the 21st century, data is everything. This was a man in possession of a powder keg of information that set the wheels in motion for a Federal investigation in the US and contributed to the fall of a government. His was not a crusade for justice for the people like Rewcastle Brown, but rather, a tale of a beleaguered former employee of PetroSaudi who had simply “had enough” and suddenly found himself swimming in the choppy, swirling waters of a financial scandal that would bring about the disgrace and downfall of so many, from prominent bankers to a prime minister.
Now the Swiss are a canny lot. During World War Two, as neutral as they apparently were, they nonetheless prepared themselves for a possible invasion by either Germany or Russia. The plan was simple and ingenious: should any of their fascist neighbours declare war on them, they would simply bomb their bridges, railway lines and tunnels, leave the cities and head for the mountains. Known for their precision and cuckoo clocks, this little known defence strategy was only declassified 20 years after the end of the Cold War. This is not a digression in the narrative, but is intended to give some perspective on his actions – that it is perhaps inbred in him to do all that is necessary to survive, no matter the personal cost and struggle.
He did not have any direct dealings with the main players of the alleged scheme, and had no clear oversight of what was happening financially, except as he says, “The only figures that were available for the PetroSaudi employees in London, even me, as a number three of the company, were the JP Morgan figures. JP Morgan Geneva received US$300 million out of all the money that was sent from 1MDB, or from the Malaysian people. 1MDB sent in total US$1.8 billion. Only US$300 million were sent to PetroSaudi to do some legal business…we never, and when I say we, I mean I and all the other employees, we never had access to the accounts of goods where this famous Good Star account was located. Those goods accounts were only kept between Tarek Obaid and Patrick Mahony. I had no access. The accountant had no access. The legal team had no access. It was kept between Tarek Obaid and Patrick Mahony for a reason that we know now.”
But he did meet Jho Low a few times, and describes his impressions: “I met the guy two times in London, (and) in the south of France. I was instructed not to talk about the PetroSaudi 1MDB deal with him because this was between Obaid, Mahony and the Malaysians. This was said, and I’ve confirmed this with the Swiss authorities, I was told that this money, the Good Star money was for Jho Low, Najib and Rosmah, but without knowing the number, the amount… he (Jho Low) was probably very good at building the structure for the crime. Setting offshore companies, using and abusing the system by creating these fake similar companies, by showing bankers that he was coming from one of the highest families in Malaysia, that his father, grandfather was a billionaire – he was probably good at that, good at convincing bankers. But he’s not a genius.”
He claims that he left PetroSaudi because his then close friend, Obaid, had treated him very badly as he became increasingly paranoid after securing a big deal in Malaysia. “So everything was well for, like, six months there. After six months, he started to be this arrogant guy. You know, some people when they get a lot of money they expect to be treated as a kind of a king… so I supported that for a few months because I’m a nice guy, but in April 2011, following a dispute that we had, it was just ‘I’m leaving, bye bye. I’ve had enough of your behaviour.’”
But not before he did two things:
1.He asked for a severance package as he had not been paid for several months during his employ. “When I resigned, I asked for my severance package. I didn’t leave Asia to go there, quit everything and not be paid. So they asked me to come up with a number that I sent to Mahony and Obaid’s lawyer, it was US$6.5 million.”
And 2. He shrewdly asked his friend who worked in IT at PetroSaudi to help him get a copy of the data because “… maybe one day there will be a problem with PetroSaudi. I didn’t expect having a problem, but there were big numbers flying around, with Venezuela. So if there was a problem, I just wanted to have a kind of insurance.” Although at the time he claims he wasn’t aware that any crime had been committed by PetroSaudi, and was in fact oblivious to the idea that any one of the 277,000 emails he had been given had any intrinsic value at all. What was initially an idea to gain leverage on negotiations should he need it, soon proved to be the mother of all insurance policies.
Justo asserts that PetroSaudi initially accepted his proposal of US$6.5 million as a settlement. But in April 2011, this was further negotiated and Justo said that in the end, he just decided to concede and told Obaid and Mahony his partner, “Give me the US$4 million, make me silent, just go away.” He maintains that he was still unaware that there was anything incriminating in the data and at this point had not revealed to the two men that he was in possession of the material. The next part of the story is critical.
It set off a chain reaction of events that led to the Big Reveal. According to Justo, Obaid was not content to just let him leave in peace, but instead mounted a campaign of harassment against him, culminating in Justo hearing of Obaid paying someone US$20,000 to wreck his wedding plans. He describes this pivotal time, “If you know this part of the world, the people with money or power, they have this feeling of – you have to be a follower. So if you leave them, it’s very upsetting. So, he didn’t accept the fact that I left. So, by doing this, by trying to bribe one common friend to disrupt my wedding, in a way it was the turning point.” Indeed it was a turning point not just for Justo, but became the little thread that unravelled years of conspiring.
Whistleblowing it seems was not part of his initial agenda, but ultimately it was what needed to be done. The extended negotiations led to one final meeting in Bangkok where Justo revealed that he was in possession of company data, and said to Mahony, “Hey man, I have a copy of this (the data)…you overdid it. I’m fed up with this behaviour, now I want my money. The original agreement, the verbal agreement that we had when I left – I want the remaining(US$) 2.5 million and that’s not negotiable.”
The rest as they say is history. As Justo was busy negotiating with PetroSaudi, Rewcastle Brown also got in touch with him. As to how she knew that he could potentially help her investigations is a mystery to him, as he denies that he was actively trying to ‘sell’ his story. “My guess – because I don’t see any other possibility – my guess is that I went two times to the Singapore Grand Prix – the Formula 1 Grand Prix, and both times, I was invited by a friend. I was in the VIP area, so I talked to a lot of people, some of them were Malaysians. We talked about ‘what are you doing, what you did, what have you done’ and probably my PetroSaudi employment came [up] a few times. So that’s my feeling. There’s no other possibility.”
Rewcastle Brown arranged for him to meet with the owner and CEO of The Edge, a financial daily in Malaysia, who were willing to pay him the money he sought from PetroSaudi if they got the data in return and described that momentous day. “They (The Edge) agreed on the money, they wanted to pay me, I said I don’t have a bank account available for that at that moment, I had another bank account but it was located in the same bank as Obaid and Mahony so I didn’t want to use this bank so I said ‘Keep the data, all yours, pay me whenever you want. If you don’t want to pay me, your choosing.’ So the owner of The Edge wanted to give me as a collateral, as a guarantee, a very expensive painting from I think, Monet. We’re gentlemen. I wasn’t going to take a painting worth millions to hang it in my Koh Samui house. That’s not who I am, and it’s probably not who you are, so let’s do it. And we shook hands, and that’s it.”
Unfortunately, PetroSaudi worked very quickly to muzzle him. A police report was filed by them in Bangkok and policemen descended upon his home, SWAT-style and arrested him. He describes the time, “So they came, they arrested me, they handcuffed me, they showed me a piece of paper they wanted me to sign. I said ‘I’m not going to sign something written in Thai.’ I mean, I just read PetroSaudi written in English, I said, ‘There’s no way I would sign this, just forget it.’ I didn’t know the charges, so I was transferred to the prison of Koh Samui just for one night. I found a lawyer, my lawyer was not there so the police sent me two lawyers, two crooks… they read the Thai version saying it’s an offence for blackmailing… but don’t worry this is a minor offence. You have to go to Bangkok to sign, to pay the bail and you will be back by tomorrow.”
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Related: Everything We Learned About 1MDB From Sarawak Report’s Clare Rewcastle Brown