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Review: ‘Billion Dollar Whale,’ by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

September 21, 2018

“Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king,” Bob Dylan sang in “Sweetheart Like You,” modifying a line from a Eugene O’Neill play but also repeating an unjust truth that crosses time and culture. People always perceive the rich to be smarter or better, and the rich get away with more as a result.

Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope put the Dylan lyric in the frontispiece of their new book, “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World.” Nine chapters in, the reader learns how that whale — an insecure scion to a garment fortune named Jho Low — nabbed the first $700 million of about $7 billion he would steal from 1MDB, an investment fund of the Malaysian government, from 2009 to 2015.

The sheer audacity of that first heist, Wright and Hope write, gave Low, who was in his late 20s at the time, access to more liquid money than anyone on the planet.

He spent it gambling and partying in Las Vegas, buying art and properties, befriending celebrities and buying off business associates and politicians to keep his money train rolling. He started a movie production company that made 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” one of several schemes he hoped might help him get legit and start repaying 1MDB. Low cowed so many celebrities into his circle, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Swizz Beatz, that one wonders if anyone in Hollywood wasn’t sullied by this guy.

Eventually, it became harder for Low to cover up the missing money. And his unraveling is compelling, if not yet satisfying. Today, Low is a fugitive from U.S. and Malaysian authorities, likely hiding out in Hong Kong or Shanghai.

This spring, Low’s last hope for legal relief evaporated when Malaysians voted out the prime minister, Najib Razak, who sponsored Low’s oversight of 1MDB and is believed to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars from the fund that Low directed his way.

Wright and Hope, who led the mainstream press in unraveling Low’s schemes, fill many pages describing the complex maneuvers Low pulled to siphon and hide so much money. Those details can be a slog but give the book authority.

Like their Journal colleague John Carreyou, who unraveled the fraud by Silicon Valley siren Elizabeth Holmes and produced this summer’s other compelling business book, “Bad Blood,” about her, Wright and Hope were harassed mightily as they pursued details of the 1MDB fraud over several years. One night in Kuala Lumpur, Wright learns that Najib has ordered his arrest and makes a break for the border.

At least Holmes thought her company Theranos, which closed this month, would produce a product useful to society. Low was just a thief and wannabe big shot. While they may not yet have Low, Malaysian authorities this summer notched a symbolic win by taking possession of his $250 million yacht.

Low will eventually be caught and tossed into an unpleasant Malaysian jail, leaving only one question in the telling of his story: Who’s going to play Leo in the movie version?

Evan Ramstad is a business team leader at the Star Tribune. • 612-673-4241

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