Washington, United States (AFP) – Pras Michel, a rapper in the 1990s hit trio The Fugees, was found guilty Wednesday of helping to funnel money from a billion-dollar Malaysia scam into US politics.
After a trial that featured Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio as a witness, Michel was found guilty of illegal political donations, money laundering and related charges in the scandal engineered by flamboyant Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho.
In the early 2010s Low, now a fugitive believed hiding in China, helped funnel billions of dollars stolen from a Malaysian state investment fund known as 1MDB into luxury US real estate, fine art, and Hollywood films like DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street.
Michel, whose real first name is Prakazrel, was accused of helping Low secretly funnel some of that money into then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign via shell companies, hiding the donations’ origins.
He was also accused of joining a clandestine lobbying effort with a senior Republican financier in 2017 to help the Chinese Government secure the return of dissident billionaire Guo Wengui, who had close connections with President Donald Trump’s political strategist Steve Bannon.
Guo has since been arrested himself on allegations he defrauded investors.
Michel, 50, was found guilty on all 10 counts he was charged with. He faces up to 20 years in prison for the most severe counts in the case, the Justice Department said.
Besides money laundering and campaign finance violations, he was charged with acting as an unregistered agent for China, concealment and false record keeping, witness tampering, and false statements.
His case drew attention because of his star career turn with the Fugees in the 1990s, but also with DiCaprio’s appearance in the Washington federal court in early April.
The 48-year-old star of Wolf of Wall Street, Titanic and other hits testified for the prosecution about Low’s wild spending sprees and lavish parties with other movie, music and TV stars, sometimes including Michel.
“I understood him to be a huge businessman with many different connections in Abu Dhabi, Malaysia… a sort of prodigy in the business world, incredibly successful,” DiCaprio said about Low.
But the money had been looted with the support of top political figures in Malaysia from 1MDB, and Low spent some of it apparently hoping to buy political protection.
Low “mentioned in passing that he… was going to give a significant contribution to the Democratic Party”, DiCaprio testified. “A significant sum, around 20 to 30 million dollars.”
Michel helped Low funnel the donations through shell companies, breaking laws that make it illegal for foreign nationals to contribute money to US political campaigns.
“Michel played a central role in a wide-ranging conspiracy to improperly influence top government officials,” said Harry Lidsk, a special agent of the Justice Department.