Leonardo DiCaprio urged to repay donations to Malaysian rainforest fund

Edward Helmore in New York
31 August 2016

Wolf of Wall Street may have been backed by donations linked to an international money laundering scandal, says the Swiss-based charity

The actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio is being urged to repay donations connected to the Malaysian fund that backed his hit film The Wolf of Wall Street and is now subject to a US justice department investigation and asset seizure effort.

The calls come from the Bruno Manser Funds, a Swiss-based charity focused on protecting the Malaysian rainforest. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the organization accused the star of “double standards” for accepting donations linked to an international money laundering scandal.

The charity claims that while DiCaprio has been engaged in an effort to protect the last remaining tracts of rainforest in Sumatra, the scandal-plagued 1MDB fund, which participated in a fundraising Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation auction at Christie’s in 2013, is connected to Malaysian deforestation less than 500 miles away.

“We are deeply disturbed that Leonardo DiCaprio and his foundation accepted assets that originate from the proceeds of corruption in Malaysia. This is a disgrace and in total contradiction with the declared aims of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation,” said Lukas Straumann, director of the Bruno Manser Fund. “We call on DiCaprio to apologize and pay back all this dirty money to the Malaysian people.”

He told the Hollywood Reporter: “We hear he has a genuine commitment to nature and championing indigenous rights … but if it comes to accepting stolen money, that’s a simple no go.”

According to the fund, DiCaprio received money from controversial businessman Jho Low and Riza Shahriz Bin Abdul Aziz, the stepson of the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak – both figures named in a justice department asset seizure complaint and connected to the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.

The Manser fund claims the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation received money from a Christie’s charity auction in 2013, where Low is alleged to have used $1.1m of diverted 1MDB funds to buy two works of art by Ed Ruscha and Mark Ryden.

The charity claims that political corruption in Malaysia is a “major driver” of deforestation, with local politicians handed lucrative logging contracts as bribes.

“It’s a corrupt system and directly affects the way natural resources are being handled,” Straumann told the Hollywood Reporter. “Politicians in Malaysia have earned billions of dollars from cutting down the rainforest illegally.”

An investigation by the Hollywood trade paper found further examples that the publication claims were channels for 1MDB funds to enter DiCaprio’s charity. It claims Low and Joey McFarland, cofounder of Red Granite, the production company behind The Wolf of Wall Street, were among those who helped raise $3m for the foundation by buying marked-up bottles of champagne at DiCaprio’s birthday party.

Last year, Low donated a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, 1982’s Brushstroke, valued at roughly $700,000, to the foundation, which was then auctioned at a charity event in St Tropez.

The Swiss charity is named for the environmentalist Bruno Manser, who lived in Sarawak, Malaysia, with the Penan tribe, one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the region. Manser organized several blockades against timber companies, angering Malaysian authorities, and later became a prominent campaigner for rainforest preservation and the rights of indigenous peoples. He disappeared during his last journey to Sarawak in May 2000 and is presumed dead.

The claims place DiCaprio in an awkward position. His latest environmental documentary, Before the Flood, is due to have its premiere at the Toronto international film festival next month. The film, by Fisher Stevens, the documentary film-maker behind 2010’s Academy Award winner The Cove, follows DiCaprio around the world as he draws attention to environmental issues.

The Bruno Manser letter comes a week after THR published a lengthy story questioning the DiCaprio foundation’s ties to 1MDB. In it, Straumann alleges that the actor was paid as much as $25m for The Wolf of Wall Street from funds allegedly siphoned off from 1MBD. “Money was stolen from the treasury and went straight into Leo’s pocket,” Straumann is quoted as saying.

The justice department complaint does not target DiCaprio specifically – he’s referred to twice in the 136-page document and only as “Hollywood Actor 1” – but any funds originating with 1MDB that ended up in the foundation or were paid to DiCaprio directly for work or as a credited producer on The Wolf of Wall Street could legitimately be targeted by the justice department.

DiCaprio started the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998. It is “dedicated to the long-term health and wellbeing of all Earth’s inhabitants”, according to the organization’s website.

The foundation has donated $3m to the WWF tiger conservation program in Nepal with the other $3m grant heading to Oceana to help save the oceans and marine animals from unsustainable fishing methods. It recently donated $1m to the Elephant Crisis Fund.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Network, the grant “will be sued to save elephants from the current ivory poaching crisis by funding on-the-ground projects that stop poaching, trafficking and the demand for ivory”.

“Elephant poaching is a brutal crisis, with more than 30,000 elephants killed last year alone,” said DiCaprio. “The decimation of these animals is something we have the power to stop, and the Elephant Crisis Fund is a crucial part of the solution. I am honored to support them.”

Earlier this week, Terry Tamminen, CEO of the foundation, told THR the organisation had made grants of more than $30m this year and described the foundation as “an incredibly efficient, highly effective philanthropic organization that, through its relationship to the California Community Foundation, is supporting credible organizations that are carrying out some of the most important work on the planet”.

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