Conspiracy trial of former Fugees member Pras Michel begins in federal court

·4 min read
Conspiracy trial of former Fugees member Pras Michel begins in federal court

WASHINGTON — The federal conspiracy trial of Grammy-winning rapper and producer Pras Michel, best known as part of the ’90s hip-hop group the Fugees, began here Thursday.

Michel, who arrived at the courthouse alongside his lawyer David Kenner, has been charged with multiple felonies alleging his participation in a conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions using foreign money, witness tampering and failure to register as a foreign agent of the Chinese government. Michel has pleaded not guilty to the charges, the most serious of which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The case is “filled with political intrigue, backroom dealing … burner phones and lies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Lockhart told jurors in her roughly 30-minute opening statement.

Image: Prakazrel “Pras” Michel arrives at federal court for his trial in an alleged campaign finance conspiracy (Andrew Harnik / AP)
Image: Prakazrel “Pras” Michel arrives at federal court for his trial in an alleged campaign finance conspiracy (Andrew Harnik / AP)

The allegations against Michel, who in recent years has reinvented himself as an activist and a businessman, focus on work he did on behalf of Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman and international fugitive accused of stealing billions from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. Low was charged as Michel’s co-defendant but has yet to be arrested.

Michel, as a member of the Fugees, had one of the most successful hip-hop albums of all time with “The Score,” released in 1996, Lockhart noted. But by 2012, “he was looking for other ways to be paid,” she said.

“The defendant needed money and was willing to do anything to get it, including being a paid agent of the Chinese government,” she said.

Prosecutors allege that Low and Michel conspired to donate millions of dollars of Low’s money to the 2012 Obama campaign and covered up the money’s foreign source using a network of straw donors and falsified Federal Election Commission reports. Federal law prohibits noncitizens from donating to political campaigns. Michel is alleged, again on Low’s behalf, to have lobbied the Trump administration to drop the Justice Department’s investigation into Low’s alleged embezzlement from 1MDB.

“Low had money to burn, and the defendant was willing to cash in at any turn,” Lockhart said.

Michel and Low also lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of Chinese government officials to extradite a Chinese dissident living in the U.S., according to prosecutors. The dissident, Guo Wengui, was never extradited, but he was arrested this month and federally charged with fraud and money laundering. Michel’s defense team has said it will ask for permission to call Guo as a trial witness.

Michel and others he is alleged to have recruited to help lobby for Guo’s extradition concealed that their efforts were in behalf of Chinese officials and that they were being financed by Low, prosecutors allege. Michel knew he was legally required to register as a foreign agent but lied about his actions because “he was getting paid too much along the way,” Lockhart told jurors Thursday.

Kenner, a Los Angeles-based defense lawyer who represented rapper Snoop Dogg in his 1996 murder trial and subsequent acquittal, declined to make an opening statement, reserving his right to make one after prosecutors rest their case.

Low’s lavish pre-indictment lifestyle and the sprawling nature of a conspiracy alleged to have spanned two presidential administrations has set the stage for a trial that could feature testimony from Hollywood royalty and the Washington elite. Potential witnesses include actor Leonardo DiCaprio (Low partly funded “The Wolf of Wall Street”), former Trump chief of staff John Kelly, casino magnate Steve Wynn, former Trump deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, former Republican National Committee official Elliott Broidy and former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Broidy pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent for his role in helping Low and Michel lobby the Trump administration to extradite Guo. Donald Trump pardoned Broidy on the last day of his presidency, and he did not have to serve time in prison.

Michel’s defense team tried to call Trump and former President Barack Obama as witnesses, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly rejected the effort, saying their testimony would be irrelevant.

The trial is expected to last through April, with both sides planning to call about 30 witnesses.

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