Fugees star to stand trial for trying to help China extradite dissident from US
A singer in one of the most famous hip-hop groups of the 1990s will stand trial for allegedly attempting to get a Chinese dissident deported from America in return for millions of dollars.
Pras Michel, a double Grammy award-winning singer with the Fugees, has been charged with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.
Mr Michel, who co-founded the Fugees in 1992 with friends Lauren Hill and Wyclef Jean, denies multiple charges related to alleged secret lobbying and channelling illegal foreign donations to electoral campaigns.
The trial is set to shine a light on a bizarre nexus of Hollywood royalty, America's political elite, and high stakes diplomacy.
His defence lawyer, David Kenner, has said he may call Donald Trump and Barack Obama as witnesses.
The government has said it may call Leonardo Dicaprio.
The case centres on Mr Michel’s relationship with Jho Low, a fugitive Malaysian billionaire who in the 2000s cultivated friendships with A-list celebrities including Mr DiCaprio, Kim Kardashian, and the supermodel Miranda Kerr.
Mr Low was later investigated by US authorities over the alleged embezzlement of billions from Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.
Mr Dicaprio, who developed a close relationship with Mr Low after meeting him in a nightclub in 2010, was grilled by the FBI about his ties to Mr Low during the investigation according to details reported by Bloomberg last week. According to a 2018 New York Times report Mr Dicaprio returned gifts he had received from Mr Low to the authorities.
US prosecutors said in a 2018 filing that Mr Low and two associates "conspired to launder" more than $2.7bn from the fund through the US financial system, and used this money to pay bribes and "for the personal benefit of themselves and their relatives".
The scandal triggered investigations in six countries and contributed to the downfall of Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister, in 2018.
In 2019, Mr Michel and Jho Low were charged with steering illegal donations to Mr Obama's 2012 presidential election campaign. Mr Obama has not commented on the case.
Mr Low was accused of transferring approximately $21.6 million from foreign entities and accounts to Mr Michel between June and November 2012. It is a crime in the United States for foreign nationals to make political contributions in federal, state or local elections.
But in 2021 a Federal Grand Jury landed fresh charges on the pair, accusing them of orchestrating twin influence campaigns to block the investigation into Mr Low and secure the deportation of Guo Wengui, below, an exiled billionaire, to China.
Investigators say Mr Michel, Nickie Lum Davis, a TV producer, and Elliott Broidy, a Republican fundraiser from California, were paid millions of dollars to pursue the undisclosed campaign.
Unlike the other celebrities, Mr Michel sought to establish a more political career after his time in entertainment, and had begun campaigning on social-justice issues.
Bloomberg Businessweek reported Mr Low initially asked Mr Michel for help finding persuading the newly elected Trump administration to block the 1MDB investigation in 2016.
Mr Low then introduced the trio to Sun Lijun, China’s vice minister of public security, who wanted help persuading the Trump administration to deport Mr Guo, who had angered Beijing by publicly accusing senior officials and tycoons of corruption, Bloomberg reported.
Mr Guo is himself wanted in China on corruption and fraud charges, which he denies. Mr Sun told the three that China was willing to make several concessions, including releasing several US citizens it was holding, in exchange for Mr Guo.
The team accepted the task and attempted but failed to arrange meetings with Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, then the US attorney general, according to the report.
'Way above my pay grade'
The arrangement made the retired rapper an unusual point man in a high-stake diplomatic game, according to the Bloomberg report.
At one point, it said Mr Michel was summoned to a late-night meeting with Mr Sun at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan.
Mr Sun, frustrated that he had failed to secure a high-level meeting with Mr Sessions, asked Mr Michel for advice - and mentioned the Chinese government was prepared to release two US nationals, one pregnant, who were being held against their will, it said.
Mr Michel reportedly replied: “This is way above my pay grade. But if I were you, I would at least send the pregnant woman back as a token of good faith.”
The woman, who has not been named, was reportedly released the following week.
Mr Guo remains in the United States. Mr Low is believed to be living in hiding in China.
Mr Michel is the only one of the three to fight the charges.
Mr Broidy pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act in October 2020. He was pardoned by Mr Trump three months later.
Ms Lum Davis pleaded guilty to one count of aiding and abetting violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and was sentenced to two years in prison.