By Joel Schectman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities moved on Thursday to seize a Picasso painting given to American movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and the rights to two Hollywood comedies, as they filed complaints to recover about $540 million they say was stolen from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad sovereign wealth fund.
The U.S. Justice Department filing was the latest legal action tied to alleged money laundering at the fund set up by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009 to promote economic development. In the complaints, the department alleges more than $4.5 billion was taken from 1MDB by high-level fund officials and their associates.
"This money financed the lavish lifestyles of the alleged co-conspirators at the expense and detriment of the Malaysian people," Kenneth Blanco, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement. 1MDB could not be immediately reached for comment.
Najib has denied taking money from 1MDB or any other entity for personal gain, after it was reported that investigators traced nearly $700 million to bank accounts that were allegedly in his name.
The assets U.S. authorities are seeking to seize include the rights to "Dumb and Dumber To," a 2014 comedy starring Jim Carrey, they allege was financed with tens of millions of dollars stolen from 1MDB, and the 2015 film "Daddy's Home" starring Will Ferrell. Last year, U.S. authorities moved to seize rights to the 2013 film "The Wolf of Wall Street," which starred DiCaprio.
The three films were produced by Red Granite, a company founded by Najib's stepson Riza Aziz. Red Granite said in a statement it was in discussions with the Justice Department "aimed at resolving these civil cases and is fully cooperating."
U.S. authorities accuse Jho Low, a Malaysian financier, of laundering more than $400 million stolen from the fund through an account in the United States, where he and his friends used the money to pay for lavish parties, gambling and yachts. Despite the civil allegations, U.S. authorities have not charged Low with any crime.
Low did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to his Hong Kong-based company Jynwel Capital.
Authorities said that in 2014 Low used $3.2 million diverted from a 1MDB bond sale to buy a Picasso painting for DiCaprio. "Dear Leonardo DiCaprio, Happy belated Birthday! This gift is for you," a friend of Low's wrote in a note.
Low also used $9.2 million diverted from 1MDB bond sales to buy a collage made by the New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat which was also given to DiCaprio. DiCaprio and Low signed a note in March 2014 absolving the star of "any liability whatsoever resulting directly or indirectly from these art-work," according to the filings.
A spokesman for DiCaprio said in an emailed statement on Thursday the actor last July "initiated the return" of gifts he had received from financiers connected to the 1MDB case. The spokesman said DiCaprio also returned a Oscar won by actor Marlon Brando. That was given to DiCaprio by Red Granite "to thank him for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street," the statement said.
DiCaprio's spokesman said the star accepted the gifts to raise funds in an auction for his environmental foundation.
Fraud allegations against 1MDB go back to 2009, the Justice Department said, and the fund is subject to money laundering investigations in at least six countries, including Switzerland and Singapore.
The complaints allege that officials at 1MDB, their relatives and other associates allegedly laundered the funds using complex transactions and shell companies with bank accounts located in the United States and abroad.
That allowed the origin, source and ownership of the funds to be hidden and ultimately passed through U.S. financial institutions, with the money being used to buy and invest in assets in the United States and overseas, according to the complaints.
(Reporting by Chris Sanders and Joel Schectman; Editing by Paul Simao and Richard Chang)