Goldman nears 1MDB resolution with effort to avoid guilty plea
02 Jul 2020

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is in the final stages of resolving its biggest legal threat in a decade after tussling with the government on one critical issue: a potential guilty plea for the first time in Goldman’s history.

To avert such a penalty over its work for a Malaysian sovereign fund, Goldman has appealed to the Justice Department’s highest ranks. Attorney General William Barr began overseeing the case after obtaining a waiver because his former law firm represents Goldman. The department’s No. 2 official has also been directly involved.

Now, a deal may be near. Prosecutors were emboldened to press Goldman for a guilty plea after a high-ranking Goldman banker pleaded guilty in 2018 and described a secretive corporate culture that sidelined compliance staff, people familiar with the case said. Since then, Goldman has pushed back on that narrative and elevated its case to the nation’s top law enforcement officers.

Goldman’s defense is led by Karen Seymour. She was brought in two years ago as general counsel with a mandate to end the years-long U.S. criminal investigation over the billions of dollars Goldman raised for the Malaysia fund, known as 1MDB. Much of that money was allegedly siphoned by people connected to the country’s former prime minister.

If Goldman escapes without a guilty plea, it will be a big victory for the bank. If not, Seymour may still be able to soften the blow by bartering over what details are included — and not included — in a statement of facts outlining Goldman’s conduct in Malaysia.

Jake Siewert, a Goldman Sachs spokesman, wouldn’t comment on the status of the negotiations. “We are trying to resolve this matter as expeditiously as possible,” he said.

John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, New York, that’s handling the case, declined to comment.

Abacus Deal

Seymour, 59, knows from her experience representing Goldman as an outside lawyer that an all-out battle could backfire. The bank tried that approach a decade ago after the Securities and Exchange Commission accused it of fraudulently marketing a mortgage investment known as Abacus that was secretly meant to fail.

Whereas banks typically respond to new investigations with deference and promises to cooperate, Goldman pushed back hard against the SEC action, vowing to defend itself and describing the SEC’s allegations as “completely unfounded in law and fact.” Over several months, the legal exposure and bad publicity lopped almost 25% from the firm’s market value.

At the time, Seymour was a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, Goldman’s outside law firm, and was dispatched to clean up the mess generated by Goldman’s fighting words. Ultimately, she negotiated a pact with the SEC that included a hefty $550 million fine but no admission of wrongdoing.

In the 1MDB case, the bank is awaiting word from Justice Department leaders about whether they agree with their prosecutors in Brooklyn that any deal must include a guilty plea by a subsidiary in Asia, according to a person familiar with the matter. (Prosecutors’ insistence on an admission of guilt was reported earlier by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.) A decision would clear the way for a settlement, the person said.

Once the Justice Department renders its decision about a guilty plea, a resolution could follow quickly, including a penalty as high as $2 billion.

By Greg Farrell, Bloomberg, 30 June 2020

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