Singapore central bank says 1MDB bond sale money didn't pass through local banks

The proceeds of a $3 billion bond sale by a troubled Malaysia state wealth fund didn't pass through any Singapore bank, the city-state's central bank said Wednesday.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said its statement was in a response to a "media inquiry," but it did not name the news outlet.

The statement appeared to contradict a key element of a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday into financial transactions by 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The WSJ cited people familiar with the matter as saying that Goldman Sachs, which led 1MDB's March 2013 bond issue, faced an investigation over whether it broke the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act by not reporting the fund transfer as a suspicious transaction.

Sources told the WSJ that sending the $3 billion in proceeds to a Singapore branch of Swiss private bank BSI, rather than to a large global bank, should have triggered concerns that the money wouldn't be used for its intended purpose.

The MAS' statement appeared to call into question the first link in the reported chain of transactions that the WSJ said took the funds to offshore havens.

The MAS declined to comment further. A representative of BSI Bank in Switzerland declined to comment on the WSJ report or Wednesday's MAS statement.

The Wall Street Journal later issued a correction to say that the bond-sale proceeds were transferred to 1MDB's account at BSI in Switzerland, not Singapore; it cited a person familiar with the matter.

The office of Malaysia's prime minister issued a strongly worded response to the MAS statement.

"The Wall Street Journal's false allegations against Malaysia have been proven to be lies yet again," Tengku Sariffuddin, the press secretary for the prime minister's office, said in a press release, which alleged the newspaper had become the "willing tool" of Malaysia's political opposition in an "openly declared campaign" to unseat the government.

In response to the correction, Tengku Sariffuddin added, "I wonder how much else from the WSJ's reporting would need 'correcting' if it wasn't publicly proven wrong by a credible authority who happens to know the facts, and who is also willing to publicly say that the WSJ is wrong. Obviously, no Malaysian authority is credible to the WSJ."‎

Malaysian authorities have often complained that the Wall Street Journal's coverage of 1MDB often uses unnamed sources.

In response to the statement from the prime minister's office, Dow Jones said - as it had on previous occasions when Najib's office had accused the newspaper of lies and collusion with the opposition - that it stood behind the Wall Street Journal's reporting, calling it "responsible, appropriate, and in the public interest."

The publisher added, "If we ever get anything wrong, we correct it in the interest of being 100 percent accurate. We remain committed to providing robust, even-handed coverage of events in Malaysia."

Signage for 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB) is displayed at the site of the Tun Razak Exchange (TRX) project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Goh Seng Chong | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The WSJ cited bank-transfer information that it said showed some of the $3 billion went to Devonshire Funds, which then sent $210 million to a now-defunct British Virgin Islands shell company Tanore Finance.

Around the same time that Goldman sold the 1MDB bond, Tanore transferred $681 million to the private bank account of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, the WSJ reported, citing investigative documents.

Goldman Sachs declined to comment on the WSJ story or the MAS statement.

Last month the MAS ordered BSI to shut down its Singapore operations, with prosecutors in the city-state and in Switzerland weighing criminal charges against the bank.

The MAS said the Switzerland-based bank had lost its status as a merchant bank in Singapore due to "serious breaches of anti-money laundering requirements, poor management oversight of the bank's operations, and gross misconduct by some of the bank's staff." It was the first time since 1984 that MAS had withdrawn a merchant bank's approval.

While Singapore's authorities did not mention 1MDB at the time of BSI's closure, Swiss authorities said the move was related to its investigation of the fund.

BSI Bank in Switzerland issued a statement at the time in which it said it had cooperated with both Swiss and Singaporean regulators in their investigations into the troubled wealth fund.

Questions about movement of funds from 1MDB came to widespread attention in July, when the WSJ reported that in 2013 nearly $700 million had flowed from the debt-ridden fund to Najib's personal bank account.

Najib has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and, under pressure from the outcry caused by the WSJ report, said the funds were a private donation from a Middle Eastern country he declined to name. He has denied benefiting personally from the funds.

In January, Malaysia's Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali said that Saudi Arabia's royal family gave Najib a $681 million gift, of which Apandi said about $600 million was later returned.

Apandi said that no criminal offense had been committed. But globally, investigations into 1MDB in locales as varied as US, Switzerland, Singapore and the Seychelles have continued.

A representative of 1MDB referred questions on Wednesday to the WSJ, saying the matter was related to the news outlet's reporting.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1