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Michel is on trial in a Washington federal court for allegedly conspiring to funnel money from a Malaysian government fund to finance Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and on Monday, actor Leonardo DiCaprio became the first of potentially several big-name celebrities to testify.
Fugees rapper Pras Michel is accused of conspiring with Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian businessman who allegedly stole billions from state fund 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad), and faces charges of money laundering, campaign finance violations, acting as an unregistered agent for foreign nationals, witness tampering and lying to banks.
Prosecutors accuse Michel—who has pleaded not guilty—of receiving more than $100 million from Low and participating in two illegal schemes: One to enlist attendees for a fundraising dinner for Obama, then reimburse them using $40,000 of the foreign money while threatening them not to tell authorities, and another to lobby Trump administration officials to drop an investigation into Low.
Low, who has denied wrongdoing, is also facing charges but is not on trial because he is believed to be at large in China.
Michel’s defense lawyers told reporters he was a passionate Obama supporter and didn’t intend to violate any laws.
DiCaprio—who is not accused of wrongdoing—testified in court on Monday about his relationship with Low, who used foreign money to finance director Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street, which starred DiCaprio.
DiCaprio told the court his relationship with Low was purely social at first—the two had met at a number of parties, including at Low’s birthday party in Las Vegas around 2010—and the two discussed the 2012 presidential election, where Low told DiCaprio of his intention to donate upward of $20 million to the Democratic Party.
Low also made donations to DiCaprio’s environmental foundation through donations and a purchase of a painting at a fundraising event, DiCaprio said, and his spokesperson previously told CNN he is working with U.S. prosecutors to return funds he received from Low.
In addition to Michel and DiCaprio, Low’s lifestyle of socializing with celebrities has led to others becoming impacted by the scandal, including Kim Kardashian: She told the FBI in 2019 she partied with Low in Las Vegas, who gave her then-fiancé NBA player Kris Humphries $100,000 to use for fireworks at their wedding, and later offered her artwork.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who led the country between 2009 and 2018 but is now serving prison time, cofounded the 1MDB fund in 2009 to promote economic development, though much of the money it raised over the next few years was embezzled. Funds diverted to offshore bank accounts and shell companies were used to purchase luxury goods for Low and his associates, including a private jet, a superyacht, hotels and jewelry, according to lawsuits. Malaysian authorities say Najib himself received more than $1 billion in funds linked to 1MDB, including a $681 million deposit to what is believed to be his personal bank account. Najib was initially cleared of wrongdoing in 2016 by Malaysia’s then-attorney general, but he was voted out in 2018 and soon charged with corruption, breach of trust and money laundering. He was found guilty on seven counts in 2020 and imprisoned for 12 years, and he still faces additional trials related to 1MDB funds. The U.S. Justice Department fined Goldman Sachs $2.9 billion in 2020—the largest ever penalty under corporate criminal bribery law—for its role in helping 1MDB raise more than $6 billion. Former Goldman Sachs banker Roger Ng was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month after being convicted of money laundering and bribery in connection with the 1MDB scandal.
Michel is a founding member of the hip-hop group Fugees alongside Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean. The group formed in 1990 and has sold more than 22 million records. Michel is a recipient of two Grammy Awards as part of the Fugees—one for their 1996 album The Score, and another for hit single “Killing Me Softly With His Song”—and he has another nomination as a solo arist for the 1998 single “Ghetto Supastar.” The Fugees haven’t released an album since 1996, though they reunited for a reunion tour in 2004 and planned on another in 2021, but abandoned those plans because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Michel has released two solo albums, Ghetto Supastar in 1998 and Win Lose or Draw in 2005, and he won a Daytime Emmy Award in 2017 for producing web series The Bay.
$4.5 billion. That’s how much money prosecutors allege Low embezzled from the Malaysian government.
In 2014, DiCaprio won a Golden Globe Award for his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, and in his speech, he thanked Low and other men linked to the 1MDB scandal by name. “Joey, Riz and Jho, thank you for being not only collaborators, but taking a risk on this movie,” DiCaprio said, referring to Joey McFarland, Riza Aziz and Low. Aziz and McFarland were credited as producers on the film and cofounded Red Granite Productions, the company financed by Low, in 2010. Low also received a “special thanks” in the ending credits of the film for his financing efforts.
In one of his final acts as president in January 2021, Trump pardoned Elliot Broidy, a Republican fundraiser who pleaded guilty in October 2020 to violating foreign lobbying laws by pushing his administration to abandon an investigation into the 1MDB scandal.
What To Watch For
Michel’s trial could last for much of April, BBC reported, and it could include other high-profile witness testimonies: Attorneys listed Jamie Foxx, Mark Wahlberg and Scorsese as possible witnesses, though a judge rejected attempts to seek testimony from Obama and Trump.
The trial with A-listers, a Fugee and a fugitive (BBC)
Feds: Fugees rapper Pras Michel ran global influence-peddling scheme for cash (Politico)
Why Leonardo DiCaprio testified at trial of Fugees rapper (AP)
Explainer: Malaysia’s ex-PM Najib and the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal (Reuters)