Federal prosecutors described to a Washington, DC, jury on Thursday how a former Fugees rapper allegedly got caught up in three schemes to illegally influence two presidential administrations on behalf of a foreign businessman.
The trial against Pras Michel, the Grammy-winning artist, began in earnest on Thursday with opening statements. Prosecutor Nicole Lockhart told the jury of six men and nine women how Michel allegedly took more than $100 million from Malaysian billionaire Jho Low and used that money to bolster Low’s influence in the United States.
Michel has pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy, witness tampering and failing to register as an agent of China. Defense lawyers opted to defer their opening statements until later in the trial.
“This case is one full of political intrigue, back-room dealings… burner phones and lies,” Lockhart told jurors.
Low, who also was indicted, remains at large and is believed to be in China.
The plot began in 2012, Lockhart said, when “Low was willing to spend lots of money to get that influence” in Washington, DC, and amongst the rich and famous. Michel, Lockhart said, “had a successful music album in the 90s, but in 2012 was looking for new ways to get paid.”
That is why Michel and Low struck a deal, she said, to surreptitiously donate Low’s money to groups backing then-President Barack Obama. Lockhart said that Michel “duped the Obama campaign” by using a series of straw donors to make the donations – almost $2 million – because the total exceeded what one person is allowed to donate to a campaign. As a result, Lockhart added, Low’s father met with Obama during a campaign event.
In 2017, Lockhart said, Low was facing several investigations in the United States over allegations that he had embezzled billions of dollars from a Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, and used some of that money to make purchases in the United States.
“Low was in trouble and Low needed help,” Lockhart said, alleging that he again turned to Michel. Lockhart alleged that Low asked Michel if he knew anyone who could “get the matter resolved,” and said he was willing to pay millions of dollars. Michel, in turn, allegedly turned to Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, who Lockhart described as “the fixer.”
The two men ran a back-channel campaign to try and get the Trump administration to drop the investigation into Low, Lockhart said, including by trying to schedule a round of golf with then-President Donald Trump and the Malaysian prime minister to discuss 1MDB “off the record.” The round never happened.
Broidy pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the alleged plot but was pardoned by Trump before he left office in January 2021.
Low also paid Michel and Broidy “tens of millions” of dollars to assist a high-ranking Chinese official in repatriating a “vocal political critic of the Chinese government” who was living in the United States, Lockhart told the jury. She alleged that Michel and Broidy met with the high-ranking Chinese official in China, tried to set up a meeting between that official and the US attorney general, and even had a third person “call the president on his yacht.”
When Michel learned he was under investigation, Lockhart said, he undertook “a stream of efforts to hide and cover up all of his dealings with Low,” including alleged attempts to “shake down” witnesses.
“The defendant knew the rules, but he was getting paid too much along the way” Lockhart said.