London law firm did PR for Malaysian fugitive accused of corruption

Harry Davies
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Taylor Hill/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

The law firm that represents the Duchess of Sussex has received $1.3m (£1m) for its work on a public relations campaign for a fugitive Malaysian financier accused of masterminding one of the world’s largest corruption scandals, documents show.

Schillings, a London-based firm that specialises in managing the reputations of wealthy clients, was paid the sum for working for the fugitive businessman Jho Low between January 2019 and March 2020, according to US lobbying disclosures. Some of its activities were aimed at “informing public opinion” in the US.

Low is accused by US and Malaysian prosecutors of orchestrating a vast money-laundering scheme that embezzled billions of dollars from a Malaysian state investment fund, 1MDB, via an elaborate network of offshore companies to pay bribes, finance luxury lifestyles, and fund the Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

The scandal led to the downfall and trial of Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, and has sparked investigations into major financial institutions Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank.

Low, who has denied any wrongdoing, is facing two US criminal indictments and is reportedly the subject of international arrest notices. Last year the US Department of Justice (DoJ) seized more than $700m of assets allegedly connected to the fraud as part of a civil forfeiture settlement with Low, having already seized his custom-made $250m superyacht.

Over the past two years, Low has embarked on a multimillion-dollar public relations offensive and hired an army of lawyers and PR advisers. Disclosures submitted to the DoJ under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara) show Schillings has supported this effort, providing “legal and consulting advice and research in support of the work” of PR advisers.

The latest disclosures, submitted by the firm’s US subsidiary last month, include a breakdown of fees for the services it has to report under Fara, which requires representatives of foreign individuals, companies or governments to file reports about their lobbying and influence activities and how much they are paid.

Schillings has disclosed its work included helping to prepare press releases and maintain a website for Low. The website describes the fugitive as “a global philanthropist, investor, and entrepreneur” who believes “he will be vindicated once all the relevant evidence has been presented in a fair and legitimate court of law”.

Disclosures also show that a London-based PR and crisis management agency, the PHA Group, run by the former editor of the News of the World and Hello! magazine Phil Hall, has received almost £275,000 since 2018 for representing Low. Both Schilling and PHA were paid via Kobre & Kim, a US law firm acting for Low, who is reportedly living in China.

Filings suggest Low has become a significant client of Schillings, which recorded revenues of £16m in 2019. The firm’s work for Low attracted criticism in 2018 after it emerged it had sent threatening letters to booksellers aimed at blocking the distribution of a book by two Wall Street Journal reporters that described Low’s alleged involvement in the 1MDB conspiracy.

A lawyer for Schillings responded on behalf of both the law firm and PHA to the Guardian’s request for comment. He said both Schillings and PHA had complied with all applicable laws and regulations and had “nothing further to add” to the contents of the Fara filings.

Meghan hired Schillings last year before launching legal proceedings against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday over the publication of a letter she wrote to her father. The move was seen as a departure from the royal family’s longstanding solicitors in favour of a firm with a reputation for working aggressively against the media on behalf of its clients.

In recent years, Schillings has begun offering its wealthy clients the services of intelligence professionals, behavioural psychologists and former military personnel alongside its lawyers. It has recruited former senior UK officials as top advisers, including the former national security adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant and former head of GCHQ Robert Hannigan.

Do you have information about this story? Email investigations@theguardian.com, or use Signal or WhatsApp to message (UK) +44 7584 640566 or (US) +1 646 886 8761.