Washington — On any given weekday, the halls of Washington, D.C.'s federal courthouse bustle with lawyers, defendants, staff, and the press and the public as they attend the various hearings, meetings and trials on the packed court schedule. Meanwhile, grand juries — like those investigating former President Donald Trump — have also been considering evidence in secret behind closed doors.
But on Monday, prosecutors in the multimillion-dollar conspiracy and fraud case againstdisrupted the daily hum of courthouse work with a different kind of titanic buzz. They called Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio to the stand to testify about his relationship with Fugees founder Pras Michel and his connections to fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low.
Investigators say Michel helped launder money Low had allegedly embezzled from a state-owned investment fund in his home country and and used the stolen cash to make illegal contributions to Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign.
Years later, according to charging documents, Michel worked with Low and others to pursue a backchannel with U.S. government officials an an ultimately unsuccessful effort to persuade the Trump administration to both abandon a federal fraud investigation into Low's business dealings and send a Chinese dissident in the U.S. back to China to face criminal charges.
Low, according to the Justice Department, allegedly misappropriated over $500 million from the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) with wire transfers to shell companies he and others owned, and some of the proceeds were used for the production of DiCaprio's hit film " "
"I am an actor," DiCaprio told the Washington, D.C. jury. He wore a suit and tie and a dark face mask that he took off as he was sworn in to testify. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has required face masks inside her courtroom as she presides over the high-profile trial to help prevent any COVID-related delays.
Speaking slowly and deliberately, the Hollywood star he first met Low around 2010 at a Las Vegas birthday party. He had been invited by a mutual friend.
Low, DiCaprio said, was known for his "lavish parties," where celebrities, actors, and other notables flocked from across country. He characterized the Malaysian financier — who is on the run and faces charges in multiple countries including the U.S. — as a "prodigy in the business world" and recalled that Low asked the actor if he had any projects that needed funding.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" needed a backer and DiCaprio said he found one in Low, who funded the film on a "personal "level" and helped convince other investors to support the endeavor, according to the actor. DiCaprio is not accused of any wrondoing in the case.
DiCaprio revealed that Low had contributed a number of gifts and donations to the Hollywood star's environmental charity, including art, photos and first-edition books for fundraiser auctions. Low, according to Wednesday's testimony, did not donate in his own name, but used a pseudonym. And DiCaprio said he was "directed to speak or communicate" mostly with Low's "right-hand man," Eric Tan.
According to DiCaprio, he had first met Michel decades earlier, likely at a concert when the rapper was on tour with his hit trio Fugees. The two were social friends, DiCaprio said during cross examination, and Michel's defense attorney suggested the actor had even invited the defendant over for a Thanksgiving meal years ago. But DiCaprio said he was not sure that was "possible."
As the 2012 presidential election approached, DiCaprio told prosecutors he and Low had a "casual conversation" about what party to support and who the actor was backing. Low revealed at that time he and others were set to give $20-30 million in support of the Democratic Party, a "significant sum," DiCaprio said.
The actor said he cut ties with Low around 2015, after his connection to the 1MDB scandal was under scrutiny by investigators.
According to charging documents, Michel and Loware accused of devising a scheme to secretly funnel approximately $2 million into efforts to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012.
It is illegal for foreign money to be used in presidential elections, and prosecutors allege the pair created shell companies and straw donors to distribute Low's wealth to the campaign and outside groups that supported Obama's reelection. The Obama campaign was "duped" and "deceived," prosecutors said, after Michel allegedly lied on disclosure forms, helping Low disguise the donations as legitimate contributions that had come from the U.S.
There is no evidence that any Obama-era officials or DiCaprio were aware of any aspect of the accused crimes. Last week, prosecutors showed jurors a picture from the 2012 campaign that depicted Michel and Low's father in a private meeting with then-President Obama.
Michel has pleaded not guilty and made several unsuccessful attempts to dismiss the charges against him, alleging prosecutors targeted him in the scheme because of his fame. His defense team — led by celebrity attorney David Kenner — has argued Michel believed he had acted in the best interest of the U.S. and did not act as a foreign agent of China.
He faces decades in prison if convicted at the end of what's expected to be a weekslong trial.
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