Nj-bred Fugees Founder Pras Michél Convicted In Federal Foreign-Influence Trial

UPDATE: New Jersey-bred rapper and producer Pras Michél, best known as a founding member of the Fugees, was convicted by federal jurors in what the government called a "clandestine foreign influence campaign scheme."

Prakazrel Samuel Michel, aka Pras Michél

Prakazrel Samuel Michel, aka Pras Michél

Photo Credit: MiamiFilmFestival, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Grammy-winning '90s hip-hop star was found guilty of 10 counts following an influence-peddling trial in Washington, DC, that featured high-profile witnesses such as Leonardo DiCaprio and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Justice Department accused Michél, 50, of collecting millions of dollars from Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho to launder money embezzled from a state-owned investment fund in his home country.

The cash, they said, included payments to Barack Obama's 2012 presidential reelection campaign and a bid to convince the Trump administration to extradite exiled Chinese tycoon Miles Guo, who'd been living in New Jersey.

Low, who was charged as a co-defendant in the case, remains a fugitive. He's believed to be in China.

Federal prosecutors said Low embezzled more than $500 million from the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, wiring the money to shell companies.

They accused Low of paying Michél $20 million to try and clear a path for illegal campaign contributions to Obama's re-election bid that were purportedly hidden from the incumbent's campaign staff.

Michél -- a Haitian-American who grew up in Irvington, NJ -- disputed the government's position, saying he considered millions in payments that he accepted from Low as "free money" that he could spend however he wished.

“I could have bought 12 elephants with it,” he told the jurors.

Michél testified that he saw his role as trying, although failing, to secure a photo opportunity for Low with Obama.

Toward that end, Michél testified, he more or less reinvested some of Low's money with friends to donate to Obama's campaign. It never occurred to him that he might be violating any laws, he said, because no one told him so.

"This is all about a highly valuable photo," defense attorney David Kenner told jurors.

Michél admitted sending letters to some of the friends who'd been contacted by the FBI, claiming that the money he gave them was a loan and demanding they repay it.

Prosecutors called the letters an intimidation tactic that amounted to witness tampering.

For his part, Michél said, "in retrospect that was a dumb thing to do."

The prosecutors also accused Michél of acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Chinese government by trying to talk the Trump administration into extraditing Guo and dropping its probe of Low.

Guo was arrested by the FBI earlier this year on charges of swindling his online followers out of more than $1 billion that the government said he used, in part, to buy a 58-room mansion in Mahwah.

SEE: Feds Charge Exiled Chinese Tycoon With $1B Fraud That Funded $26.5M Mahwah Mansion, More

Michél -- who tried following the success of the Fugees by becoming a businessman -- told jurors "no one I spoke to ever mentioned" federal laws that required him to register as a foreign agent.

Others who took the stand included DiCaprio, whose "Wolf of Wall Street" film was funded by Low.

In the end, the jurors convicted Michél of conspiracy to defraud the United States, concealment of material facts, making false entries in records, witness tampering and serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign power.

"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 A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department's Criminal Division said in a statement.

Michél didn't comment to reporters following the verdict.

Defense attorney David Kenner said he intends to appeal the conviction after his client is sentenced.

“We are extremely disappointed in that results and are very, very confident in the ultimate outcome of this case,” Kenner said.

“This is not over," the attorney said. "I remain very, very confident that we will ultimately prevail in this matter."

A sentencing date hadn't been set.

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