By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A jury on Wednesday convicted Grammy Award-winning rapper Prakazrel “Pras” Michel of The Fugees hip hop group on criminal charges that he conspired with a Malaysian financier to orchestrate a series of foreign lobbying campaigns aimed at influencing the U.S. government under two presidents.
His conviction in federal court in Washington followed a trial that was filled with political intrigue and featured high-profile witnesses including Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Michel endured a blistering cross-examination by prosecutors while testifying in his own defense.
Michel was charged with 10 counts of crimes including conspiracy, acting as an agent of a foreign government, witness tampering and falsifying campaign finance records. Prosecutors accused him of plotting with Malaysian businessman Jho Low to attempt to influence the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Low, who also faces separate federal charges in New York that he embezzled $4.5 billion from Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund, remains at large.
Michel’s lawyer David Kenner told reporters outside the courthouse he was “extremely disappointed” by the verdict, but remains hopeful the charges could be dismissed by the judge.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly set deadlines for both parties to file briefs on a number of post-trial motions, including a request for a judgment of acquittal, that extend into July.
“I remain enormously confident that this case is not over, and that we will ultimately prevail,” he added.
The Fugees won two Grammy Awards for their best-selling 1996 album “The Score.” But by 2012, according to prosecutors, Michel was in desperate need of cash and found a solution through Low, who was known to throw elaborate parties and pay celebrities big sums of money.
Prosecutors said Michel agreed to funnel about $2 million from Low into Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in exchange for receiving millions of dollars. Because federal election law prohibits foreigners from donating to U.S. campaigns, prosecutors said Michel masked the source of the funds.
Michel was also accused of seeking to convince the Trump-era Justice Department to drop civil and criminal investigations into Low over the 1MDB scandal and trying to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of China to send Chinese billionaire and dissident Guo Wengui back to China.
On the witness stand, Michel said the $20 million Low paid him over the course of nine months in 2012 was to help Low secure a photo with Obama. Michel acknowledged that he used some of the money to pay for three of his friends to attend two political fundraisers for Obama’s 2012 campaign, but denied doing so at Low’s direction.
“Once he gave me the money, it was my discretion how I spent the money because it’s my money,” Michel told the jury, describing the payment as “free money.”
On whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, Michel told jurors that his attorney George Higgenbotham never told him it was required by law. Michel also said he passed along information to the FBI about China’s desire to have Guo extradited amid concerns by China that Guo was “allegedly a criminal rapist,” saying he “thought it was something the FBI should know.”
Higgenbotham, who has since pleaded guilty for his role in the scheme, told jurors that he met with the Chinese ambassador in Washington at Michel’s insistence to assure the Chinese that the Trump administration was working toward extraditing Guo.
Guo, who was never extradited, has since been indicted on unrelated fraud charges in New York.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham and Stephen Coates)