Washington — The trajectory of rap star Pras Michel’s career took an unusual path, from making music to making rich friends and attempting to influence American policy decisions, prosecutors alleged Thursday in their opening arguments in the multimillion-dollar fraud and conspiracy case.
The Grammy-winning musician and founder of the group Fugees, was indicted in 2019 on federal charges that he worked with Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low, to help launder money Low had allegedly embezzled from a state-owned investment fund in his home country. Michel, who was in the courtroom on Thursday, is accused of using the stolen cash to make illegal contributions to a political campaign and pursuing a backchannel with U.S. government officials to persuade them to both abandon a federal fraud investigation into Low’s business dealings and send a Chinese dissident in the U.S. back to China to face criminal charges.
Prosecutors told jurors in a Washington, D.C. federal court Thursday that Michel’s case was full of “political intrigue, backrooom deals…burner phones and lies” and promised that evidence they present in the weekslong trial will show he was “willing to break any law necessary to get paid.” In all, the Justice Department alleges Low paid him approximately $100 million.
According to charging documents, Michel and Low — who remains at large after being charged in both the U.S. and Malaysia — are accused of devising a scheme to secretly funnel approximately $2 million into efforts to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012.
It is illegal for foreign money to be used in presidential elections, and prosecutors allege the pair used shell companies and straw donors to distribute Low’s wealth to the campaign and outside groups that supported Obama’s reelection. The Obama campaign was “duped” and “deceived,” prosecutors said, after Michel allegedly lied on disclosure forms, helping Low disguise the donations as legitimate contributions that had come from the U.S.
There is no evidence that any Obama-era officials were aware of any aspect of the accused crimes, but prosecutors told the jury Thursday they would present a picture from the 2012 campaign that showed Michel and Low’s father in a private meeting with President Obama.
At trial, prosecutors said jurors will hear from many of the straw donors who were allegedly used by the duo in the scheme.
Michel has pleaded not guilty, denied wrongdoing and mounted a forceful defense against prosecutors in pre-trial proceedings with current attorney David Kenner, who has previously represented other high-profile clients including Snoop Dogg.
Jurors didn’t hear from Michel’s lawyers because they chose to reserve their opening statement until after prosecutors rest their case.
In 2016, the FBI was investigating Low, whose connections with top Malaysian government officials were pivotal in fraudulently diverting billions of dollars from the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), according to government documents charging Low in 2018.
In hopes of putting a stop to the federal probe, Michel and Low, along with other defendants who have since pleaded guilty to lower-level crimes, tried to pressure members of then-President Donald Trump’s administration to drop the 1MDB investigation, prosecutors argued.
The duo tried to establish an “illegal backchannel influence to the President of the United States,” the Justice Department alleged in opening arguments.
According to the indictment, it was also around this time that the group worked to illegally pressure the federal government to extradite Guo Wengui, a Chinese national and an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party, to China. The defendants are alleged to have been working as unregistered agents of the Chinese government in the U.S.
Guo has since been arrested and charged in a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme of his own.
Michel, Low and their partners, including Republican lobbyist Elliott Broidy, allegedly met with leaders in the Chinese government and came up with what would ultimately be an unsuccessful plan to pay Broidy millions of dollars to use his political contacts to push Low’s agenda. Broidy’s plan included sending talking points to a secretary of state and pressuing Trump administration officials to put meetings on then-President Trump’s calendar. The Justice Department says Michel helped conceal that money and illegally acted as a foreign agent of China in what was, as prosecutors called a “clandestine foreign influence campaign.”
Michel, Low, Broidy and others contacted political and governmental leaders in the U.S. to peddle their influence and deepen their ties, prosecutors say. Michel’s defense team tried to call Obama and Trump to testify at the trial, but the judge overseeing the proceedings denied the request.
“Among the U.S. government officials whom Broidy contacted or attempted to contact or influence, directly or indirectly, were the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, and the President’s Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor,” prosecutors wrote in pretrial filings. The group even went so far as to try to arrange a golf outing between Trump and the Malaysian president at the time in an effort to push for the 1MDB investigation to be abandoned.
And in another instance, Michel successfully convinced the Chinese government to return a pregnant Chinese dissident to the U.S., with the expectation that doing so would prompt American officials to push forward with the Guo extradition.
Guo was never handed over to the Chinese government.
Broidy, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to serve as an unregistered foreign agent, could be called as a government witness. Trump pardoned him shortly before leaving office in 2021.
Low and his company had ties to many Hollywood actors and members of the media elite, including Leonardo DiCaprio, who has since returned donations that his environmental charity received from the Malaysian financier. Court documents reveal prosecutors plan to call an unnamed actor to testify about Low’s finances and the 1MDB operation.
Michel’s legal team has levied accusations of “outrageous government conduct” against prosecutors, alleging they pressured and threatened witnesses like Broidy, who flipped on Michel. The defense has also made claims of selective prosecution, arguing that Michel “is the individual singled out by the Government as the one person who shall be made an example” because of his notoriety.
“Mr. Michel remains the only person who has refused to plead guilty and who has refused to succumb to the Government’s pressure. He is the only one in this case, and in related matters, to be scapegoated,” his attorneys wrote last year, contending Michel believed he had acted in the best interest of the United States. Multiple attempts to dismiss the charges against him have been denied.
Prosecutors on Thursday also told the jury they will see evidence of Michel’s alleged attempts to obstruct the probe once the FBI was on his tail, even threatening straw donors from the 2012 presidential election with lawsuits if they talked to investigators.
The government’s first witness in the case was FBI Special Agent Robert Heuchsling, a federal investigator with deep experience in the case. Heuchsling described Michel and Low’s conduct as “one pinging scheme that had distinct phases,” all allegedly tied to efforts to “corruptly influence the U.S. government.”
The trial, which is expected to take several weeks, is a high-profile test for the Justice Department’s enforcement of laws that require anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government in the U.S. to register as a foreign agent. Michel’s defense attorneys said they’ll call a number of high-profile witnesses to rebut the charges.
If convicted, the former hip-hop star faces decades in prison.
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