WASHINGTON — A Fugees rapper on trial in a multimillion-dollar campaign finance and foreign influence case was trying to reinvent himself as he entered the political arena, not break any laws, defense attorneys said Monday.
Prakazrel “Pras” Michel became a best-selling, Grammy-winning artist with the 1990s hip-hop group the Fugees, but in the years after its breakup was looking for his next chapter, attorney David Kenner said as he began making the defense case.
Michel surrounded himself with people to help with his transition to politics and eventually entered the orbit of a wealthy Malaysian “playboy” but didn’t engage in “James Bond … cloak and dagger stuff,” he said.
“There was no agreement to do anything in an unlawful way,” Kenner said.
Michel is charged in political conspiracies under two different U.S. presidents. Federal prosecutors say he funneled money from the fugitive Malaysian financer through straw donors to Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. He’s also accused of trying to squelch an investigation into the businessman and persuade then-President Donald Trump’s administration to return to China a “vocal critic of the government.”
The Justice Department says Michel conspired with Low Taek Jho, usually known as Jho Low. The fugitive financier is accused of masterminding a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions from the Malaysian state investment fund known as 1MDB. Low has maintained his innocence.
Looted money paid for jewelry and luxury art and helped finance Hollywood films like “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Actor Leonardo DiCaprio testified that Low had appeared to him to be a legitimate businessman and had mentioned wanting to donate to Obama’s campaign.
When Michel first met Low at a nightclub in 2006, the businessman “appeared and acted as though he had unlimited amounts of money,” Kenner said. Michel would later make money himself through his association with Low, but “making money, even if you consider it greedy, is not a crime.”
Prosecutors, on the other hand, say Low directed millions to Michel, who funneled the money to straw donors to give to the Obama reelection campaign in 2012. He later tried to lean on the donors to keep them from talking to investigators, prosecutors said.
In 2017, prosecutors say, the Grammy-winning rapper worked with a Republican “fixer” to try and shut down a U.S. investigation into Low and embezzlement from the Malaysian fund. He’s also accused of pushing the Trump administration to send a Chinese person who had fled to the U.S. back to China.
The defense says he tried to set up a meeting on that issue, but no one ever told him he should have registered as a foreign agent before doing so, Kenner said.
“What he was trying to do was go through the proper channels,” he said.
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