WASHINGTON – The case against a Fugees rapper accused in multimillion-dollar political conspiracies across two presidencies wound down with closing arguments Thursday that capped off a trial that included testimony from actor Leonardo DiCaprio and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Prakazrel “Pras” Michel is accused of funneling money from a now-fugitive Malaysian financer through straw donors to Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, then trying to squelch a Justice Department investigation and influence an extradition case on behalf of China under the Trump administration.
“He willingly broke the law to line his pockets and generate access and influence at the highest reaches of government,” prosecutor Sean Mulryne said. “He wanted money. Lots of it. And he got it.”
The defense argued the Grammy-winning rapper from the 1990s hip-hop group the Fugees simply got bad advice as he reinvented himself in the world of politics.
“Mr. Michel is a proud American (and) entrepreneur,” said defense attorney David Kenner. “Mr. Michel was simply being himself – a connector. He saw an opportunity to make easy money for himself, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The case is expected to go to a jury on Monday.
When first met Low Taek Jho in 2006, the businessman usually known as Jho Low was dropping huge sums of money and hobnobbing with the likes of Paris Hilton. He helped finance Hollywood films, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.” DiCaprio testified Low had appeared to him as a legitimate businessman and had mentioned wanting to donate to Obama’s campaign.
Michel also testified in his own defense. He said Low wanted a picture with Obama in 2012 and was willing to pay millions of dollars to get it. Michel agreed to help and used some of the money he got to pay for friends to attend fundraising events. No one had ever told him that was illegal, he said.
Prosecutors said he was donating the money on Low's behalf, and later tried to lean on the straw donors with texts from burner phones to keep them from talking to prosecutors.
After the election of Donald Trump, prosecutors say Michel again took millions to halt an investigation into allegations Low masterminded a money laundering and bribery scheme that pilfered billions from the Malaysian state investment fund known as 1MDB. Low is now an international fugitive and has maintained his innocence.
Prosecutors said Michel also tried to convince the U.S. to extradite back to China a government critic suspected of crimes there. (backslash)
“This case is about foreign influence, it’s about foreign money, and it’s about greed,” Mulryne said.
The defense also pointed to testimony from Sessions, who was Trump's top law enforcement officer until he resigned in 2018. He said he’d been aware the Chinese government wanted the extradition but didn’t know Michel. The rapper’s ultimately futile efforts to arrange a meeting on the topic didn’t seem improper, said Sessions
“What happened in 2017 was not willful and it was not deliberate,” Kenner said.