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Pras Michel stands trial in Washington, D.C., for conspiracy and other charges

Musician Pras Michel in a 2015 portrait taken in Los Angeles.
Frederic J. Brown
/
AFP via Getty Images
Musician Pras Michel in a 2015 portrait taken in Los Angeles.

Jury selection in the trial of Grammy-winning musician Pras Michel kicks off Monday in the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., marking a pivotal moment in a case filled with allegations of political maneuvering and international intrigue.

Michel faces charges including conspiracy, witness tampering and failing to register as an agent of China, in a case that could send him to prison for decades if he's convicted.

He came to worldwide attention in 1996, when his band Fugees released The Score, which remains one of the best-selling and most-streamed albums of all time.

But what landed Michel, 50, in the bustling federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., took place only after he tried to refashion himself as a businessman and political force in the U.S. and in Haiti, the homeland of his parents.

At the center of the case is a billionaire named Jho Low, who allegedly bilked Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund of billions of dollars to fill his own pockets and curry favor with celebrities and American presidents. Low is a fugitive from justice believed to be in China, so Michel is standing trial on his own.

"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," wrote prosecutors John Keller, Sean Mulryne and Nicole Lockhart.

Prosecutors put Michel in the middle of two different sets of alleged crimes: first, an illegal plan to enlist people to attend a fundraising dinner for Barack Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign; reimburse them $40,000 apiece using foreign sources of money for the cost of the tickets; and then threatening some of them if they came clean to authorities.

The second plan allegedly involved a secret lobbying campaign to help the billionaire Low lean on American justice officials and White House officials when his fraud scheme unraveled — and to help the Chinese government "secure the return" of a dissident who was living inside the U.S. and developing close ties with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

The FBI arrested that dissident, Miles Guo, earlier this month for allegedly orchestrating a separate financial fraud. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has largely excluded evidence about that case from the Michel trial.

A number of people tied to Michel's far-flung alleged plan already have pleaded guilty or secured immunity from the government, including George Higginbotham, a former Justice Department lawyer moonlighting on work for Michel while he served in the government.

In court filings, Michel signaled the outlines of his defense: arguing that he relied on advice from lawyers and that he thought he was acting in the interests of the United States when he met with a Chinese minister at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York in 2017.

"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," defense lawyers David Kenner and Charles Haskell wrote in court papers this month.

Ninety prospective jurors are headed to court for what could be an extensive voir dire process. In court last week, prosecutor John Keller estimated the Justice Department could call as many as 30 witnesses, with defense attorney Kenner estimating around the same number.

Those witnesses could include actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred in The Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 film directed by Martin Scorsese. The movie chronicles the rise and fall of a financial fraudster; in real life, the film was financed in part through a company with ties to Low. Other potential witnesses include former President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former political aide Bannon and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the eve of trial, citing the pending litigation. A representative for defense lawyer Kenner said they could not speak on the record. Kenner has a long history of representing hip-hop artists, including successfully defending Snoop Dogg in his 1996 trial for murder. Another current Kenner client is Tory Lanez, who is appealing his conviction ofshooting fellow musician Megan Thee Stallion.

Michel's trial is expected to extend through most of April.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.