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Prosecutors say Pras Michel broke the law 'to get paid'

Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, left, a member of the 1990s hip-hop group the Fugees, accompanied by defense lawyer David Kenner, right, arrives at federal court for his trial on March 30.
Andrew Harnik
Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, left, a member of the 1990s hip-hop group the Fugees, accompanied by defense lawyer David Kenner, right, arrives at federal court for his trial on March 30.

Grammy-winning hip hop musician Pras Michel pocketed $100 million in an effort to bring "secret, illegal foreign influence to bear" on two different presidential administrations, breaking conspiracy laws and tampering with witnesses along the way, prosecutor Nicole Lockhart told jurors Thursday morning.

Michel is standing trial on multiple criminal charges in federal court in Washington, D.C., where 12 jurors will eventually determine his legal fate. Authorities said the case is filled with political intrigue, burner telephones and lies.

"This is a case about foreign money, foreign influence and concealment," Lockhart told the jury. "The defendant wanted money and was willing to break any laws necessary to get paid."

The Justice Department put Michel, 50, at the center of two separate streams of illegal conduct tied to the billionaire Jho Low, who's been accused of stealing $4 billion from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. Low is a fugitive from justice believed to be in China, so Michel is standing trial alone.

Prosecutors cast Low as desperate to cozy up to American presidents and celebrities. And they said Michel was happy to assist, so long as he "got paid."

Michel, a member of Fugees, whose 1996 album The Score remains one of the top streaming albums of all time, later tried to reinvent himself as a businessman and a humanitarian.

In 2012, Michel allegedly arranged for so-called straw donors to make contributions to then-President Obama's reelection campaign, only to reimburse them later with illegal foreign money. Years later, when the federal government began to investigate, Michel allegedly leaned on some of those donors to lie or not talk to authorities about the matter.

By 2017, billionaire Low's financial dealings had come under scrutiny and he needed help – "secret influence at the highest levels of the U.S. government," prosecutor Lockhart said.

Low enlisted fixer Elliott Broidy, who was pardoned on the last day of former President Trump's term in office, and a cast of others to reach out to the Justice Department, the State Department and the White House, prosecutors said. The goal was to make the U.S. probe of Low go away — and to curry favor with Chinese government officials who sought the return of a dissident living on American soil.

Defense attorney David Kenner, who has represented prominent musical artists including Snoop Dog, told the jury he would reserve his opening statement until after the government rests its case. Kenner objected five times during the prosecution's opening remarks to mixed results from U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

Kenner has argued in court papers that his client thought he was acting in the best interests of the United States, not as an agent of China, so he had no need to register with the Justice Department.

The trial is expected to last four to six weeks. Possible witnesses include former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, casino mogul Steve Wynn and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred in The Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 movie financed by a company with ties to Low.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.