A quarter-century ago, as a member of the pioneering hip-hop trio the Fugees, Prakazrel “Pras” Michél basked in the glow of two Grammy Awards the group received for its mega-platinum 1996 album, “The Score.”
This was the peak of his celebrity.
After he, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill split up in 1997, Michél’s solo career waned, and he shifted to other profit-making ventures – including, a prosecutor said Thursday, illegally funneling $2 million in stolen foreign money into a U.S. presidential campaign and scheming to quash an FBI investigation of the corrupt Malaysian financier who supplied the cash.
Michél, who turned 50 last fall, was rap royalty back in the day. Now, clad in a dark suit and striped tie, he sat in a federal courtroom in Washington, on trial in one of many legal cases arising tangentially from a gargantuan crime: the looting of roughly $4.5 billion from Malaysia’s state-owned investment and development fund.
The scandal has touched scores of people, some famous, whose names are likely to be heard in testimony in U.S. District Court over the next month: actor Leonardo DiCaprio, reality star Kim Kardashian, casino magnate Steve Wynn and others who became entangled – wittingly or unwittingly – in what authorities said were plots to launder vast sums of pilfered money, gain influence in the White House during the Obama and Trump administrations, and short-circuit a years-long Justice Department probe related to the Malaysian embezzlement.
“This is a case about political intrigue, backroom dealing, fake names, burner phones and lies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole R. Lockhart said Thursday in her opening statement in Michél’s trial. She said that for his role in various criminal conspiracies, in 2012 and in 2017 and 2018, Michél pocketed about $88 million that belonged “to the Malaysian people.”
Some defendants charged in the sprawling investigation have made deals with prosecutors. One of them, former top Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, was described by Lockhart in court as “the fixer.” She said “the fixer” sought to use his access to President Donald Trump in 2018 to advance one of several criminal conspiracies tied to the thievery in Malaysia. After Broidy pleaded guilty in the case, admitting to illegally lobbying for foreign nationals, Trump pardoned him on his last full day as president.
Lockhart said Broidy will testify against Michél for the government.
Referring to Michél’s once-lucrative recording career, Lockhart suggested that his time in the hip-hop limelight was long over. “The defendant needed money and was willing to do anything he could to get it,” she told the jury, saying Michél “was willing to break any law necessary to get paid.”
Defense attorney David E. Kenner deferred his opening remarks until prosecutors finish presenting their evidence. In past public statements, Kenner said his client is innocent. Michél has pleaded not guilty to a 12-count indictment accusing him of money laundering, campaign-finance violations, acting as an unregistered agent for foreign nationals, witness tampering and lying to banks.
In one scheme, in 2012, Michél received “almost $18 million” from Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho for illegally funneling $2 million into President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, Lockhart said. Authorities have described Low as among the looters of the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, known as 1MDB. They said he used the stolen money to pay for a lavish lifestyle in the United States, including bacchanalian parties with celebrities, supermodels and movers and shakers in New York, Hollywood and elsewhere.
He met the former Fugees hip-hop artist at a Manhattan nightspot.
Michél is accused of enlisting straw donors, all U.S. citizens, to contribute the $2 million in permissible increments to the Obama campaign, without the campaign knowing the money’s actual source. Paying for Michél’s help was part of Low’s plan to expand his network of swanky and powerful acquaintances – “to get in a room with President Obama,” as Lockhart put it. Eventually, Low got to pose for a Christmas photo with Obama, who was a fan of Michél’s music.
Low, now charged with numerous federal crimes, is a fugitive from justice and believed to be in China, according to authorities.
Kenner, the defense lawyer, has told reporters that Michél, a passionate Obama supporter, didn’t intend to violate any laws – that he was a political neophyte unfamiliar with befuddling campaign-finance rules.
How a New Jersey-bred rapper of meteoric 1990s fame wound up a central figure in a web of international criminal intrigue is a tale that begins in the late 2000s, when a small circle of Malaysians controlling the country’s sovereign wealth fund began treating it as a private piggy bank, according to U.S. and Malaysian officials. They said one of the embezzlers was Low.
In the United States, where authorities said he engaged in massive money laundering in the 2010s while reveling in an ostentatious, wild-spending lifestyle, Low would eventually make a deal with prosecutors in a civil forfeiture case, giving up $700 million in assets, including a Beverly Hills hotel. Before that, though, he enjoyed hobnobbing with an ever-growing roster of boldfaced names in the entertainment and business worlds.
In court filings, prosecutors said he cozied up to DiCaprio, allowing the actor to gamble on his tab at a Las Vegas casino, giving him pricey artwork and arranging financing for the hit 2013 movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” DiCaprio starred in the film and was a co-producer.
As for Kardashian, she told FBI agents that she partied with Low in Las Vegas years ago and that Low gave her then-fiancé, NBA player Kris Humphries, $100,000 to pay for fireworks at their 2011 wedding, Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported, citing FBI documents.
By 2017, however, the fast-living financier was under investigation in United States and other countries in connection with the 1MDB embezzlement. “Low was in trouble and Low needed help,” Lockhart said in her opening statement. So he turned again to Michél.
This was where were Broidy, “the fixer,” came in, Lockhart said. After Trump took office in 2017, Broidy was named a deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee under Wynn, the casino mogul, who was finance chairman. As Michél tried to come up with a way to assist Low, he was introduced to Broidy by an acquaintance, according to the indictment in the case. Lockhart said “the fixer,” for a price, agreed to urge federal officials to shut down the Justice Department’s 1MDB-related investigation of Low.
The conspirators’ deal with the Malaysian money man: “an $8 million retainer fee upfront, and an additional $75 million success fee if the ‘matter’ was resolved within 180 days, or $50 million if the ‘matter’ was resolved within 365 days,” the indictment says. It says their written contract was disguised as a legal-fees agreement for helping Low with the civil forfeiture case. The “true purpose,” though, “was to secure Broidy’s services to lobby the Administration and DOJ” to end the federal probe, according to the indictment.
While that effort failed, Lockhart said, the conspirators took another approach to helping Low. This involved a labyrinthine plot to curry favor with the Chinese government in hopes that Beijing would assist Low in resolving his global legal woes. To that end, Broidy again lobbied the Trump White House, Lockhart said, this time seeking the deportation of a wealthy Chinese dissident, Guo Wengui, who was living in New York under a temporary visa. She said Beijing “desperately” wanted to get its hands on Guo, a longtime vocal critic of the government.
“This was always about illegal backdoor influence on the president of the United States,” Lockhart said.
And “it almost worked,” she said. “The fixer himself met with the president in the White House,” seeking Guo’s extradition. Ultimately, even though Guo wasn’t deported, Michél received “over $70 million” from Low, according to Lockhart. Guo has since been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in an unrelated financial fraud case.
Kenner, Michél’s attorney, has told reporters that his client was only trying to help his country, that a top Chinese security official had promised him Beijing would cooperate with the United States on cybersecurity matters and other sticky issues in exchange for Guo being extradited. Kenner has described the hip-hop star as a naive amateur diplomat – a dilettante, not a criminal.
Lockhart offered a different view.
“The evidence will show Low had money to burn,” she told the jury, “and the defendant was willing to cash in at every turn.”