Pras Michel stands trial in Washington, D.C., for conspiracy and other charges
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Jury selection begins today in the federal trial of a Grammy-winning musician. Pras Michel is best known as a member of the hip-hop group Fugees, alongside Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean. Years later, while reinventing himself as a businessman, he attracted attention from the Justice Department. And now he's charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered agent of China. NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas and justice correspondent Carrie Johnson are following the case. Anastasia, let's start with you. Tell us a bit more about Pras' musical background.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: So Pras Michel's biggest moment as a musician is, as you said, with Fugees. Their 1996 album "The Score" remains one of the best-selling and most streamed albums of all time. But later, Michel had his own chart hit as a solo artist with the song "Ghetto Supastar."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHETTO SUPASTAR (THAT IS WHAT YOU ARE)")
MYA: (Singing) Ghetto supastar (ph), that is what you are. Coming from afar, reaching for the stars.
MARTÍNEZ: Yep, great song. Carrie, what are the charges - central charges, though - in this criminal trial?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: There are really two big buckets to this prosecution. The first is alleged violations of election law. After Pras Michel made himself into more of a political influencer, he allegedly used so-called straw donors to funnel foreign money to the Obama campaign in 2012. One example is allegedly giving people $40,000 so they could attend a fundraising dinner and repaying them later. Prosecutors say a lot of that money came from a billionaire named Jho Low, who is now a fugitive from justice.
And the second bucket in this case is about what Michel allegedly did during the Trump years to help that billionaire Jho Low after he got in legal trouble and what Michel allegedly did to curry favor with the Chinese government, which had its own goal. China really wanted help in getting a dissident outside of the U.S. and sent back to China. These are pretty serious charges that could send Michel to prison for a long time if he's convicted.
MARTÍNEZ: So, Carrie, what is the defense prepared to say about this?
JOHNSON: Michel's defense team says the Justice Department offered many other people involved in these alleged schemes immunity from prosecution or some pretty good plea deals. So he's basically the last man standing here, even though they say he was not a major player. One of the defense arguments will be that this guy is a musician, not a D.C. insider or an expert in geopolitics. So the idea he's bargaining with a member of the Chinese government at a Four Seasons hotel in New York meant he may have been really in over his head. They also say Michel acted in the best interest of the U.S. In one example, they say he helped to get a pregnant hostage released from China. They say he was working for the U.S., not China, so he shouldn't have had to register as a foreign agent here.
MARTÍNEZ: And, Anastasia, I mean, there are some big personalities, some pretty big names associated with this trial.
TSIOULCAS: That's exactly right. David Kenner, who is Michel's lead defense attorney, has a long history of representing hip-hop stars. Just as he's defending Michel this trial, he's also representing artist Tory Lanez in the appeal process after Tory was convicted of shooting fellow musician Megan Thee Stallion. So Kenner is a very experienced criminal defense attorney, and he also successfully defended Snoop Dogg during his 1996 trial for murder.
We should also note a big part of any case related to Jho Low is Low's penchant for high-glamour friends and associates. Low hungered to be a powerful Hollywood insider, and a production company allegedly tied to Low financed the 2013 film "The Wolf Of Wall Street," which was directed by Martin Scorsese. And as you may remember, it starred Leonardo DiCaprio in a real-life tale about a grifter. And the witness list for Pras Michel's trial might include DiCaprio.
MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Carrie, how long do you think this trial is expected to last?
JOHNSON: Well, 90 prospective jurors are headed to court this morning to answer questions about whether they know or have opinions about Michel or his music or any of the other likely witnesses in this case, which also could include former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon and casino mogul Steve Wynn. Prosecutors say their case is going to take about two weeks or so. It's not yet clear if Michel is going to testify in his own defense in this case. That's a decision that may be made down the road. But the trial could wrap up near the end of April. And, A, we've also got a jury consultant that's going to be in the room working for Pras Michel. That's how important this case is to his future and his liberty here.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson, along with Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks, you two.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
TSIOULCAS: Thanks so much.
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