Washington – Grammy-winning hip-hop starwas found guilty of 10 counts related to what prosecutors called a "clandestine foreign influence campaign scheme" funded by a wealthy Malaysian financier to peddle influence in the United States.
The weekslong trial saw witnesses likeand former Attorney General Jeff Sessions take the stand and testify under oath.
Prosecutors alleged at trial that the Fugees founder immersed himself in American politics at the behest of Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low, who paid him millions to help launder money Low had allegedly embezzled from a state-owned investment fund in his home country. The alleged scheme involved payments to Barack Obama's 2012 presidential reelection campaign and efforts to convince the Trump administration to extradite a Chinese national.
Low remains at large, but was charged as a codefendant in Michel's case and played a major role in witness testimony and evidence presented to the jury. According to the Justice Department, Low allegedly misappropriated over $500 million from the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) with wire transfers to shell companies he and others owned.
Michel testified in his defense last week and said his relationship with Low began in 2006 at a Manhattan nightclub. Low, Michel said, bought bottles of champagne for everyone in the club and flashed his wealth.
Years later — as then-President Barack Obama ran for reelection — prosecutors alleged Low paid Michel $20 million to develop a scheme by which Low's foreign wealth could be illegally funneled into the Obama campaign through straw donors and political committees.
Prosecutors did not allege Obama campaign officials were aware of the purported illegal payments and said they were "duped" into accepting illicit funds.
During his testimony, however, Michel offered a different interpretation of the events. He said he viewed Low's payments as "free money," and accepted the millions over the course of nine months to help Low secure a photo-op with Obama. Securing the picture with Obama, Michel testified, proved harder than expected as campaign officials were wary of the Malaysian financier's past.
As the 2012 campaign season approached the end, according to court records and testimony, wealthy Democratic donor Frank White hosted a fundraiser at his Washington, D.C., home, and pressed Michel to fill a table with friends, each worth about $40,000 in donations.
Michel testified he paid his friends money so they could donate to Obama's campaign and attend the dinner, at one point telling the jury he was paid approximately $20 million to secure the photo for Low, and about 10% of that money went towards paying his friends so they could attend the fundraiser. He said under oath that no one told him such payments toward political donations could have been unlawful or violations of campaign finance laws.
The money, Michel said, was his — not Low's — and the intent was not to break the law, but to secure the photo for Low.
"This is all about a highly valuable photo," said Michel's defense attorney David Kenner during closing arguments last week, "He was trying to make money…it is not illegal." The Justice Department's contention, Kenner contended, was "absurd."
Still, prosecutors pressed Michel on campaign finance laws. He said he was aware of other election money laws, like those that prevented Low, a foreign national, from donating to Obama's campaign, and another that limited how much Michel himself could donate.
The jury also found Michel guilty of attempting to pressure some of those 2012 straw donors to whom he sent money in an effort to influence their cooperation with investigators. The rapper testified he followed the bad advice of a hired attorney, a "stupid" idea that he said he regretted.
The Justice Department also charged Michel with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Chinese government, working in 2017 to influence the Trump administration to drop its investigation into Low and extradite a man in the U.S. wanted by the Chinese government. That man, dissident Miles Guo, was charged earlier this year in a billion-dollar fraud scheme in New York and remains detained.
Prosecutors alleged Michel, Low, and their partners, including Republican lobbyist Elliott Broidy, met with leaders in the Chinese government and came up with what would ultimately be an unsuccessful plan to pay Broidy to push Low's agenda. The plan included sending talking points to officials and pressuring them to put meetings on then-President Trump's calendar.
Broidy pleaded guilty to one federal count as a result of the scheme and Trump pardoned him shortly before leaving office in 2021.
Michel said on the witness stand that "no one I spoke to ever mentioned" federal laws that required him to register as a foreign agent and said he would have done so if advised. Kenner, his attorney, in closing arguments, called the government's case a "house of cards" and said the government did not prove Michel intended to break the law.
But prosecutors told the jury Michel skirted the law to make even more money from Low.
Kenner said outside court on Wednesday Michel would appeal, adding, "This is not over."
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