Rapper Pras Michel was spotted near a Washington DC courthouse on Tuesday as jury selection continues in his eagerly-anticipated fraud trial.
The New Jersey-born musician, who made his fortune as a member of The Fugees, became embroiled in a complex web spun by Malaysian financier Jho Low. Low remains on the run, and is believed to be living in China.
Michel, who styled himself as a political activist and connector of influential individuals after the Fugees disbanded, has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of conspiracy, witness tampering, and failure to register as an agent of China.
Michel is accused of taking millions of dollars from Low to help him make political connections and influence people. Michel says he was seeking money for his own projects, and thought he was helping the United States.
One of Michel’s ‘missions’, on Low’s orders, was to convince the U.S. government to hand over a New York-based Chinese billionaire, Miles Guo, to the Chinese authorities. Guo is an ally of Steve Bannon and has now been arrested by U.S. authorities.
Pras Michel is seen on Tuesday near the Washington DC courthouse where his trial is being held
Michel, 50, was dapper in his sharply-tailored suit, red tie and pink socks
The rapper’s trial is expected to begin next month
Low wanted Guo handed over to Beijing as a favor with Chinese leaders, as a form of insurance as U.S. prosecutors began investigating Low’s own dealings.
Michel became entangled in the mess.
On Monday jury selection began, and on Tuesday the rapper was seen near court, smart in a pinstriped suit and red tie. He did not comment on the proceedings.
The 50-year-old is accused of accepting $100million from Low, and using his funds in an attempt to influence the administrations of both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Low is accused of orchestrating one of the largest financial scams in history.
He is accused of turning the slush-fund budget of the Malaysian government into his personal cash piggybank, selling phony bonds through Goldman Sachs, and using the money to fund a celebrity-filled lifestyle.
He even funded the Leonard DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street.
Low, 41, is believed to be hiding in China so Michel is standing trial alone for his involvement in the scam.
The proceedings are expected to begin in April.
Michel told Rolling Stone he first met Low at a nightclub in New York City in 2006.
Prosecutors allege Michel became involved in a two-part scheme orchestrated by Low, for which he was charged in 2019, court documents show.
The first involved a fundraising event for Obama during his 2012 presidential campaign.
Michel allegedly reimbursed guests to attend the $40,000-per-head fundraising dinner in an effort to curry favor with the president’s administration, and then threatened them to ensure they did not reveal where their funds came from, according to NPR.
Michel allegedly funneled a total of $1 million of Low’s funds into Obama’s campaign, and did it through 20 donors to avoid detection. Those funds allegedly came directly from the cash Low stole from the Malaysian government.
The second plot involved Michel helping Low lobby officials in the Trump administration in an effort to end an investigation into Low’s business dealings.
Pras Michel faces decades in prison if he is found guilty of his alleged part in the scheme
Jho Low is accused of carrying out one of the largest financial scams in history
‘The defendant, Prakazrel [Pras] Michel, received over $100 million from Jho Low, a foreign fugitive responsible for one of the largest embezzlement schemes in history,’ prosecutors wrote in court filings.
‘To use backchannel influence to convince the then-President of the United States to drop a federal investigation into Low and to agree to the extrajudicial removal of a Chinese exile living in the United States.’
Michel is also believed to have met with a Chinese government official at a Four Seasons Hotel in New York City to organize their efforts in 2017.
Chinese officials wanted Chinese financial fraudster Guo – then residing in the United States – extradited back to Beijing.
Guo was known to have formed a close relationship with Trump White House advisor, Steve Bannon.
This month, Guo was arrested by the FBI for allegedly scamming people out of about $1billion in an online scheme. His New York City penthouse apartment mysteriously caught fire hours after his arrest while agents were searching it.
Jho Low alongside Leonardo DiCaprio at the premiere of The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013
Michel is accused of trying to lobby influence with Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon, along with the administration of Barack Obama
Court filings indicated Michel plans to argue he merely followed the advice of his attorneys, and that everything he did he thought had been in the interest of the US government when he met with Chinese officials.
‘Defendant continues to deny he was acting as an agent for China and denies he willfully and knowingly acted as a secret agent under the direction and control of China when he approached the FBI,’ his defense attorneys wrote.
Several people involved in Michel’s alleged schemes have already plead guilty or obtained immunity from the government as a part of the investigation, according to NPR.
Michel allegedly pocketed between $8million and $40million for his role in assisting Low in the scheme.
The trial is expected to draw a number of high-profile witnesses, which could include Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly, former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, and former national security advisor H.R. McMaster. Trump’s former attorney Rudy Giuliani could also be called, along with Bannon himself.
Pras Michel gained fame in the 1990s with his hip hop group The Fugees
Low and Michel met at a nightclub in NYC in 2006. Low is thought to be hiding in China
Another notable witness is DiCaprio, who reached out to the justice department when he first learned of the charges against Michel in 2019.
Low helped fun the film’s $100 million budget as a part of what appeared to be an ongoing scheme to infiltrate Hollywood and celebrity circles.
It remains unclear whether Michel was involved in funding the film.
A spokesperson for the actor said at the time that the actor was working with investigators ‘to determine whether he or his foundation, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, ever received any gifts or charitable donations directly or indirectly related to these parties, and if so, to return those gifts or donations as soon as possible.’
‘Both Mr. DiCaprio and LDF continue to be entirely supportive of all efforts to assure that justice is done in this matter,’ the spokesperson continued. ‘Mr. DiCaprio is grateful for the lead and instruction of the government on how to accomplish this.’
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