Federal prosecutors in the United States have opened a case against Pras Michel, a member of the Fugees, for allegedly embarking on a brazen secret-influence scheme aimed at the highest levels of the US government.
During the government’s opening argument in the criminal foreign agent and campaign finance case against Michel, Justice Department attorney Nicole Lockhart accused the rap star of being a washed-up, money-hungry entertainer who was willing to break any laws necessary to get paid.
Lockhart alleged that over a span of about five years, Michel accepted vast sums from Malaysian businessman Jho Low in order to try to shut down an investigation into Low’s alleged role in looting a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund known as 1MDB.
Some of Low’s money went to Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign and an associated super PAC, while other funds helped back an effort in 2017 to get former President Donald Trump to stop the probe into Low. Michel allegedly enlisted a close Trump ally, former Republican National Committee Deputy Finance Chair Elliott Broidy, to aid Low and to advance another purported goal: getting a wealthy Chinese businessperson, Guo Wengui, deported back to China. Low funded those efforts as well, Lockhart said.
Michel made a staggering $88 million off Low between 2012 and 2017, according to Lockhart. “Low had money to burn and the defendant was willing to cash in,” Lockhart said.
The trial, which is taking place in federal court in Washington D.C., is a chance for the US government to recover from a string of high-profile courtroom defeats it has suffered in recent years as it followed through on promises to crack down on foreign-influence efforts.
Michel’s defense team has signaled plans to argue that he believed he was working to advance US interests in his dealings related to Guo and in related efforts to free US citizens held by China.
The trial is expected to bring some star power from Hollywood and the political arena to the federal district courthouse near the Capitol. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is likely to testify, along with casino mogul Steve Wynn, Broidy, and top figures from the Trump administration such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Actors Jamie Foxx and Mark Wahlberg, director Martin Scorsese, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson have also appeared on lists of potential witnesses for the trial.
Whatever Michel’s financial condition at the time of the alleged scheme, there’s no doubt that it became dire following his initial indictment on the campaign finance charges in 2019 and the addition of the unregistered-foreign-agent charges in 2021.
Last year, Michel sold his interest in the rights to his Fugees’ recordings to a private equity group in order to raise money. He also sought to fundraise for his defense by offering potential financiers a stake in $75 million the government seized from him — a sum he plans to try to recover if he’s acquitted, according to Reuters.
Michel is the highest-profile defendant from outside the political world to go on trial in federal court in Washington since Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens stood trial in 2012 on perjury charges. A jury acquitted him on all counts.
Justice Department officials have defended the enforcement drive, stressing that despite the setbacks more people involved in lobbying for foreign interests are registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. However, the case against Michel may prove difficult to absorb, given the disparate allegations against him, including the bizarre claim that a hip-hop star who supported Obama orchestrated an attempt to influence the Trump administration’s decisions about criminal investigations and foreign policy.
The trial is ongoing, and Michel’s defense team will have an opportunity to present its case after the government presents