Pras Michel, who founded the Grammy-winning rap band The Fugees, started his trial this week in a federal case in Washington, D.C. Michel, 50, is accused of currying favor and influence in the Obama and Trump administrations at the behest of Malaysian billionaire Lo Taek Jho, known as Jho Low, who was looking to gain favor with U.S. celebrities and politicians. But Low’s billions are alleged to have been stolen from the Malaysian government in the 1MBD (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal.
Here’s an explainer about how and why the Fugees co-founder got here.
What he’s accused of:
“The defendant, Prakazrel Michel, received over $100 million from Jho Low, a foreign fugitive responsible for one of the largest embezzlement schemes in history, 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,” federal prosecutors said in the indictment.
Low is being tried in absentia along with Michel as he’s currently a fugitive whose whereabouts are unknown.
Who is Jho Low?
In an extensive Rolling Stone story on the case, reporter Michael Ames, who talked to Michel, details how he came to be charged. Jho Low is a Malaysian businessman accused of stealing $4.5 billion from the Malaysian government. He used the money to befriend U.S. celebrities, including Leonard DiCaprio, who he helped finance The Wolf of Wall Street to the tune of $100 million. Low was throwing around staggering amounts of money to gain access and influence.
In just one example in 2012, after a lavish birthday celebration, Low upped the ante by throwing a New Year’s Eve party in Australia so he and his fancy friends could celebrate the holiday in two time zones. He chartered a plane with a nightclub inside taking Michel, Jamie Foxx, Jonah Hill and others to Australia to first celebrate the New Year there and then return to the States to party again.
Another celebrity caught in the extensive list of people tied to the case is Kimora Lee Simmons. Though she was not directly involved, her husband, Tim Leissner, a former Goldman Sachs banker, was convicted of money laundering and bribery in the Low case and is awaiting sentencing.
(While testifying against a colleague in the case, it was revealed that Simmons and Leissner’s 2014 marriage is invalid because he was still married to another woman.)
How much money changed hands?
The feds seized $74 million from his bank accounts and arrested Michel, 50, in 2019, in a scene reminiscent of ones you’ve seen in the movies. When he walked out of his Soho apartment, federal agents who’d been disguised as a jackhammer operator, phone repairman and window shoppers at a nearby Versace store, assisted in the arrest.
“This is a case about foreign money, foreign influence and concealment,” federal prosecutor Nicole Lockhart told jurors at the start of the trial on Thursday. “The defendant wanted money and was willing to break any laws necessary to get paid.”
What did Pras do, exactly?
Michel met Low through a nightclub promoter in 2006. He knew him casually for a few years, but their relationship intensified when Michel got involved in politics. After successfully forming relationships with celebrities including Miranda Kerr and Leonardo DiCaprio, Low wanted to get into the political arena, and that’s where he and Michel’s interests aligned.
The Rolling Stone report says that Low funneled multiple millions into Michel’s accounts, in one case to cover donations to the Obama campaign from various “straw” donors. That’s illegal on at least two fronts – taking campaign donations from foreign nationals and distributing them in other people’s names. It is also alleged that Low paid $20 million for a picture with the Obamas that a Michel contact in the White House helped set up.
If that wasn’t enough, in 2016, Michel connected Low with the Trump administration. Low, then believed to be working with the Chinese government, wanted to get a fugitive Chinese billionaire and a Chinese dissident both living in the U.S. back to China, among other actions favorable to the government.
That is the crux of the case against Michel who denies he was assisting Low as a foreign agent. He told Rolling Stone, “I was one of those people who was just dabbling. I never thought I would be full-time into politics. I realized politics is not for me. The problem with politics is this: It’s that the people within politics, they’re dirtier than the people who are not in politics.”
Where is Jho Low now?
The Justice Department ultimately seized $1 billion in assets from Low—including a yacht, multiple properties around the world, a private plane, gifts of a Basquiat, a Picasso, Marlon Brando’s Oscar for On the Waterfront to DiCaprio, as well as the rights for movies Low financed and his $100 million stake in Sony Music. But Low eluded capture by the U.S., at one point doing so by sailing to ports around the world by turning off the ship’s transponder. He is believed to be living in China under the protection of the Chinese government.
What happens if Pras loses the case?
Pras could do more than 20 years in jail. His lawyer is David Kenner, best known for his work with Death Row Records, who successfully defended Snoop in his murder case in 1996.
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