Former 1990s Fugees rapper 'Pras' Michel on trial for alleged conspiracy to funnel $2 million in foreign donations to 2012 Obama campaign

April 9, 2023
Ben Marquis

An international campaign finance conspiracy trial has been ongoing this past week that involved celebrities as both a defendant and a witness, a formerly high-profile Malaysian businessman who is now a fugitive, as well as the 2012 re-election campaign of former President Barack Obama.

Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, formerly of the 1990s rap trio Fugees, is facing prosecution on a slew of federal charges that include funneling around $2 million in foreign funds from the Malaysian businessman into the 2012 Obama campaign through himself and other straw donors, the Washington Examiner reported.

Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, took the stand during the trial as a literal star witness of the prosecution to testify about his prior relationships with Michel and the Malaysian businessman, Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, and his knowledge of their scheme to make illegal contributions to the Democratic Party and Obama campaign.

Federal charges issued

The Justice Department announced in 2019 that Michel and Low had been indicted in connection with an alleged 2012 conspiracy to funnel millions of dollars in foreign funds into the 2012 presidential election in support of then-President Obama.

Low is alleged to have wired around $21.6 million to Michel for the purpose of making political donations that appeared to be legitimate. Michel is alleged to have personally contributed about $1 million of that total to a committee in support of the Obama campaign while an additional $865,000 was distributed to at least 20 other straw donors to similarly make donations to a fundraising committee associated with the Obama campaign.

A DOJ release in 2021 revealed that the initial indictment had been amended and superseded by a new indictment with additional charges for Michel and Low related to a separate but related conspiracy to illegally engage in unregistered foreign lobbying of the Trump administration to drop an ongoing investigation of Low's alleged embezzlement of a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund known as 1MDB -- the proceeds of which were used to finance the illegal foreign contributions to the Obama campaign.

In addition to the initial federal charges related to the illegal campaign contributions, Michel was also charged with conspiracies regarding money laundering and making false statements to banks as well as witness tampering.

DiCaprio's connection to Michel and Low and the conspiracy

The Associated Press reported that Jho Low is alleged to have embezzled billion of dollars from the 1MDB fund and used that money to bankroll a lavish lifestyle of private jets and superyachts and extravagant parties with celebrities, and came to become friends with DiCaprio by financing $100 million in production costs for the actor's "The Wolf of Wall Street" movie with director Martin Scorcese.

Michel, meanwhile, is alleged by prosecutors to have conspired with Low to funnel as much as $100 million in funds stolen from 1MDB into the 2012 election in support of then-President Obama.

Also implicated in the various schemes and already serving time in prison, according to the AP, are former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak -- whose son was listed as a producer of the DiCaprio film -- for using some of the embezzled funds to finance his own re-election and bribe other politicians, as well as a former Goldman Sachs banking executive who helped facilitate the looting of the sovereign fund.

CNN reported that DiCaprio testified for about an hour during Michel's trial about his relationships with the former rapper, who he befriended in the 1990s, and Low, who he became acquainted with around 2010, and also how he had then distanced himself from Low around 2015 when he began to learn of the allegations about the 1MDB embezzlement.

As for his knowledge of the 2012 election contributions scheme, the actor testified, "It was a causal conversation about what party he was in support of, I told him what party I was in support of. And he told me that he, or he and a group, were going to make a significant contribution to the Democratic Party" in the approximate amount of $20 to $30 million.

Indicted Malaysian businessman now a fugitive

The Washington Post reported that Low disappeared shortly after he was federally indicted and is believed to be living in China as an international fugitive, though judgments have been made against him in his absence.

That includes the civil forfeiture of around $700 million in U.S. real estate assets and the surrender of around $60 million from the production company, Red Granite, that Low set up to fund the DiCaprio film. The actor himself has also turned over to authorities more than $12 million in gifts that he received from Low in the form of artwork and memorabilia.

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