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Whistleblower from 1MDB discusses "paying the price" for standing out for what is right

The story of Xavier Andre Justo, a former Swiss banker who turned whistleblower in one of the biggest financial scandals of the last ten years, demonstrates how those who speak out against bribery and corruption are frequently the only ones who suffer the consequences of the allegedly "victimless crimes" they expose.

One of the directors of the London office of the Saudi oil corporation PetroSaudi was Justo. The corporation and Malaysia's newly established national wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), entered into a multibillion dollar joint venture in 2009 with the intention of funding infrastructure projects to support the nation's economic growth.

Justo departed PetroSaudi in 2011 after a disagreement with its co-founder Tarek Obaid; as a "insurance policy," he took a server containing private emails and other financial information with him to his house in Thailand.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) referred to the case as the "largest kleptocracy case to date," but Justo was unaware of the significance of the material he actually held—a treasure trove of records that provided blatant proof of financial crime and the laundering of at least $4.5 billion.

However, the illicit activity—as well as its scope—was only discovered in 2014 when Justo was asked to provide evidence to back up allegations of extensive money laundering and embezzlement by the Malaysian publication The Edge and British investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown. More than 227,000 emails from Petro Saudi were duly made public by him, exposing one of the largest corruption investigations in history and bringing Najib Razak, the country's prime minister, into the fray.

Following this, Justo was detained in Thailand on suspicion of extortion after allegedly seeking to obtain $2 million in exchange for the server's return in order to pay back unpaid wages. He was forced into writing a confession and given a six-year prison sentence after being threatened with the possibility of serving 10 years in prison. This sentence was later reduced to 18 months as a result of an amnesty marking the country's new king's coronation. In December 2016, he was released. However, he is still under investigation in Switzerland.

After stealing approximately $10 million from the fund, Razak was found guilty of corruption, money laundering, and criminal breach of trust and was given a 12-year prison sentence in July 2020. He is the only other individual involved in the affair to go to jail, after Justo.

"No executives, no bankers, and no criminals have been sent to prison–just a whistleblower and the former prime minister. What does that tell you?"  During a fireside chat at Compliance Week Europe in Edinburgh, Scotland, in late October, Justo informed the audience.

Justo has paid a steep price, like many whistleblowers, for exposing an employer's questionable practices.

"I haven’t been able to get work since. I’ve been to interviews and the people say how great it is that I did the right thing and how brave I was, but no one wants me in their company. I’m seen as a liability," he continued.

"I’m branded a whistleblower. I don’t see myself as a whistleblower: I just tried to do something good and I paid the price and I’m still paying the price."

Nothing, in Justo's opinion, can adequately prepare you for the toll that this can have on your job and family life.

"It was hard for my wife to live through all of this and I have a young son who is going to find stories on the internet that I was a criminal and that I went to jail. I don’t want him to see any of this but what can you do?"

Despite the consequences, Justo informed attendees that he would blow the whistle once more in a similar situation—but only if given legal defense and advice.

"You have to seek the advice of professionals, competent people, because there are many risks. If I had used specialized people, I would not have gone to jail," he referred to The Signals Network, a U.S.-based NGO that aids whistleblowers.

"We are now in the ‘golden age’ of whistleblowing," according to the session moderator Mary Inman, a partner at the law firm Constantine Cannon and the head of its international whistleblower practice. This is because those who speak out have more legal protection and support thanks to the Whistleblower Directive of the European Union, for example.

According to Inman, additional encouraging developments include the U.K. government's plans to establish an Office of the Whistleblower that will be modeled after the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority and offer staff members free guidance on how to disclose suspicions of potential wrongdoing. By fLEXI tEAM


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