WASHINGTON — Rapper and producer Pras Michel, who has been accused of conspiring to make illegal campaign contributions and failing to register as an agent of China, took the stand in his own defense Tuesday morning in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom.
Michel, best known as a member of the ’90s hip-hop group Fugees, told jurors that he accepted about $20 million in 2012 from a Malaysian businessman who wanted his photo taken with President Barack Obama but that the large amounts were never intended as illegal foreign campaign contributions or as payment for Michel’s services.
“I looked at it as free money,” Michel said, insisting that after the businessman, Jho Low, gave him the money it was his to spend how he wanted.
“I could’ve bought 12 elephants with it,” Michel said.
Michel is charged with 10 counts total consisting of conspiracy, lying to the Federal Election Commission, witness tampering and failure to register as a foreign agent.
Low, Michel’s co-defendant, is also charged with four felony counts of conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent. Low has in addition been accused of stealing billions of dollars from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. He hasn’t been arrested and remains an international fugitive.
Prosecutors allege Low and Michel plotted to donate Low’s money, via Michel, to the 2012 Obama campaign to get Low access for his desired photo opportunity. As part of the scheme, prosecutors say, Michel passed on smaller amounts of Low’s money to straw donors who contributed to the campaign in their own names.
Michel has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Michel told jurors Tuesday that he gave about $800,000 to friends so they could donate in their names and gain access to exclusive, $40,000-per-seat Obama fundraisers in Miami and Washington, D.C., but reiterated his belief that the money was his to spend, regardless that he received it from Low.
“Did you ever make any donation to anybody on behalf of Mr. Jho Low?” Michel’s lawyer David Kenner asked on direct examination.
“No,” Michel replied.
On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Keller asked Michel whether he knew using straw donors was illegal.
“At that time I didn’t know that,” Michel said.
Michel maintained that at all times he relied on the advice of legal and financial advisers and was never informed that any of his actions were illegal.
Michel is also accused of having later helped Low lobby the Trump administration to drop the Justice Department’s investigation of Low’s alleged role in the 1MDB scandal. In addition, Low and Michel are alleged to have lobbied the Trump administration to deport a Chinese dissident living in the U.S. on behalf of Chinese officials.
Such actions on behalf of foreign officials would have required Michel to register as an agent of China under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, but Michel told jurors Tuesday that no one, including FBI agents he met with, had ever told him that was necessary.