SINGAPORE (March 22): The noose is tightening around Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho – the alleged mastermind behind the multibillion-dollar scandal over state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

US authorities are preparing to file criminal charges of wire fraud and money laundering against the flamboyant financier, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter.

However, no potential timing for the filing of the criminal charges has been revealed.

According to WSJ, prosecutors would first have to present evidence to a grand jury. To obtain an indictment, the grand jury would need to agree that the US government had probable cause to believe a law had been broken.

The plan to file criminal charges comes after a recently-concluded visit to Singapore by a team from the US Department of Justice to conduct interviews related to Low and other 1MDB-linked matters, says WSJ, citing two people familiar with the trip.

Better known as Jho Low, the 35-year-old is alleged to be the central figure in an elaborate plot to siphon billions of dollars from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.

And the web of alleged corruption and money laundering has spread across the globe. Authorities in at least four countries – Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the US – are currently investigating what is believed to be one of the largest financial frauds ever.

The reported US criminal probe is understood to be separate from the civil action suit brought by the US Department of Justice in July 2016.

The Justice Department last year moved to recover more than US$1 billion (($1.36 billion) worth of assets, including luxury real estate and art masterpieces, which were allegedly bought with misappropriated funds from 1MDB.

US authorities are also seeking to seize Low’s US$35 million private jet, as well as other properties including a US$100-million interest in EMI Music Publishing Group, and a US$380-million stake in the Park Lane Hotel in New York.

(See: US seizure of 1MDB assets moves on with Jho Low’s family sidelined)

Citing people familiar with the US investigation, WSJ says the Justice Department is also seeking to Low’s US$165 million 300-foot yacht, the Equanimity, to the list of assets it is trying to seize.

According to WSJ, the helipad-equipped Equanimity was recently berthed for more than a month at a marina in Phuket, Thailand. The yacht is said to have been moored in Thai waters since Oct 2016.

Low’s Bombardier Global 5000 private jet in February was also reportedly seized and grounded at the Seletar Airport by authorities in Singapore.

(See: Singapore seizes $50 mil private jet belonging to 1MDB mastermind Jho Low: report)

WSJ reports that Low has “largely disappeared from public view” since the US asset-seizure suits.

Citing people familiar with his movements, WSJ says Low has since avoided the US and has been mainly living in China and Thailand. He was last year described as a “long-term resident” at the Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai.

In addition, Low is said to have been “warned by officials in Malaysia to stay away,” according to WSJ, citing people familiar with the matter.

US authorities last year also accused Red Granite Pictures of using US$100 million that was diverted from 1MDB to finance the film “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Red Granite is helmed by Riza Aziz, the step-son of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who oversaw the 1MDB fund.

Authorities say 1MDB-linked funds – laundered through the US banking system – were used to fund the luxurious lifestyles enjoyed by Low and his associates.

(See: Jho Low gambled away millions from 1MDB funds in Las Vegas casinos: US DOJ)

The timing of the reported criminal charges that the US authorities are intending to file against Low might prove to be awkward for Prime Minister Najib.

Citing a person with knowledge of the investigation, WSJ says Najib is the “Malaysian Official 1” that was referred to in US court documents, who was alleged to have received millions of dollars siphoned from 1MDB.

The Malaysian prime minister is reported to be close to Low, and had received more than US$1 billion in his personal bank accounts, including more than US$800 million originating from 1MDB, according to WSJ.

WSJ says the money was flowed through to Najib via a network of offshore funds and accounts controlled by Low and his associates.

Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Malaysia’s attorney general last year said the large deposits into Najib’s personal bank account were a donation from a member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, and that most of the funds had been returned.

The criminal charges against Low will come at time that Malaysia is preparing for its 14th General Election, which must be held by August 2018.

Already, Malaysia's Information Department has frozen employees’ annual leave applications for overseas travel, with effect from May 1.

Back in December last year, Najib had said that the polls would be held “soon”.

In Singapore courts earlier this month, the trial of former BSI wealth planner Yeo Jiawei over money laundering charges linked to 1MDB was postponed to a date that has yet to be determined.

Yeo, 34, has already been convicted last year for tampering with witnesses and is currently serving a 30-month sentence.

Yeo is said to be close to Low, and reportedly left BSI Bank to work for the alleged 1MDB mastermind.

(See: Ex-BSI banker Yeo Jiawei was close to 1MDB mastermind Jho Low: Prosecution)

Yeo is part of a widening web of private bankers in Singapore that have been implicated in the 1MDB scandal.

Citing a person involved in Singapore's investigation into 1MDB-related offences, WSJ says the city-state has been building a potential criminal case against Low.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) on last week slapped former Goldman Sachs executive Tim Leissner with a 10-year ban from working in the financial industry here.

Leissner is said to have helped 1MDB arrange issuance of billions in bonds, earning the American investment bank hefty fees.

Two other former private bankers – former Falcon Bank branch manager Jens Fred Sturzenegger, and Low’s relationship manager Yak Yew Chee – are facing lifetime bans for their roles in helping money transfers linked to 1MDB.

In addition, Yvonne Seah, Yak’s long-time colleague and subordinate, faces a 15-year ban.

(See: 1MDB-linked former private bankers to face lifetime ban)