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Fugees' rapper Pras Michel convicted in foreign influence case

Pras Michel, former member of the Fugees, center, and his lawyer David Kenner arrive to federal court in Washington, D.C., on April 3, 2023.
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Pras Michel, former member of the Fugees, center, and his lawyer David Kenner arrive to federal court in Washington, D.C., on April 3, 2023.

Grammy-winning musician Pras Michel has been convicted in a federal court in Washington, D.C., on 10 counts related to charges that include conspiracy, witness tampering and failing to register as an agent of China.

It was a case that spanned actions on two continents and multiple countries, a star studded witness list, foreign intrigue and both domestic and international influence peddling.

At the center, prosecutors said, was Michel, 50, a member of the '90s-era group Fugees whose 1996 album The Score remains one of the top streaming albums of all time, and who later tried to reinvent himself as a businessman and a humanitarian. He netted the attention of federal authorities when he waded into international and national politics.

Ultimately, Michel was convicted of conspiracy, concealment of material facts, making false entries in records, witness tampering, and serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

Michel faced charges stemming from his relationship to Jho Low, a Malaysian billionaire accused of stealing $4 billion from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.

Back in 2012, prosecutors said Michel used Low's illegal foreign money to buy seats for people at fundraisers for then-President Barack Obama.

Years later, after the FBI started investigating Low for stealing money, Low wanted Michel and others to help him convince the Trump White House to go easy on Low.

One part of that alleged scheme was to try to get Trump to send a dissident living in the U.S. back to China to curry favor with the Chinese government.

Prosecutors said Michel collected about $100 million from Low to try to influence two U.S. presidential administrations.

Low is believed to be in China; Michel stood trial alone.

And in the days of testimony, the witnesses included former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a top White House adviser to former President Donald Trump and actor Leonardo DiCaprio whose movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, was funded by Low.

DiCaprio arrived at court under heavy security and testified that Low told him he wanted to spend $20 or $30 million to help reelect Obama back in 2012.

That testimony turned out to be pretty important, since injecting foreign money into the campaign system was a key part of the case against Michel.

"As proven at trial, the defendant engaged in an extensive conspiracy to use millions of dollars in foreign funds to engage in illegal back-channel lobbying and make unlawful campaign contributions," Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. of the Justice Department's Criminal Division said in a statement. "Today's verdict demonstrates that anyone who engages in unlawful foreign-sponsored efforts to influence American officials, our elections, or the criminal justice system will be brought to justice."

Michel's attorney, David Kenner, has vowed to appeal. Earlier in the case, Kenner raised concerns about the jury selection process and some of the judge's rulings.

That may form the basis of an appeal later this summer.

"This is not over," Kenner told reporters at the courthouse on Wednesday. "I remain very very confident that we will ultimately prevail in this matter."

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

Washington desk