Prosecutors say Pras Michel broke the law 'to get paid'
ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:
Opening statements today in the trial of Grammy-winning musician Pras Michel. He's charged with conspiracy and witness tampering over an alleged campaign to funnel foreign money into American politics. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is at the courthouse in Washington, D.C., and joins us now. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.
FLORIDO: Carrie, it might have been a while since listeners heard about Pras Michel. He's generally known as a musician. Remind us how he got his start.
JOHNSON: Sure. Pras Michel was a member of Fugees, a really popular hip-hop trio. Their 1996 album, "The Score," remains one of the biggest-streaming albums of all time. But in recent years, Michel tried to become a businessman and kind of a political influencer, and that landed him in trouble right here at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., where prosecutors say he was looking for a big payday.
FLORIDO: What does the Justice Department accuse Michel of doing, exactly?
JOHNSON: Prosecutor Nicole Lockhart told the jury this morning that this is a case about foreign influence, foreign money and concealment. She says Michel teamed up with a billionaire named Jho Low, first to try to funnel foreign money into the Obama re-election campaign in 2012 and then to try to get the Trump White House to go easy on Low after he came under scrutiny for a huge fraud scheme. In all, the Justice Department says Michel collected about $100 million from Jho Low. Now, Low is a fugitive, believed to be living in China, and that's another part of this case and this story.
FLORIDO: So how is China playing into the arguments in the courtroom?
JOHNSON: The Justice Department says Michel should have registered as an agent of China with the DOJ because he was trying to get the Trump administration to send a dissident living here in the U.S. back to China, and that amounted, according to the prosecutors, to a foreign influence operation. The deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, talked about these kinds of cases in general at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington earlier this week. Here's more from Deputy AG Monaco.
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LISA MONACO: The American people have a right to know when a foreign government seeks to influence policy decisions or public opinion here in the United States of America. At the Justice Department, we're doing everything we can to expose this behavior.
FLORIDO: Carrie, what can you tell us about Michel's defense?
JOHNSON: Well, the defense says it's going to deliver its opening statement after the government rests, which may be about two weeks from now. Michel's lawyer is a guy named David Kenner. He's represented a lot of musicians over the years, including Snoop Dogg in 1996 in a murder case that they won. Kenner has signaled that Michel thought he was acting in the best interest of the U.S., not on behalf of China, and that meant he didn't have to register as a foreign agent. So far, it's not clear if Michel is going to testify in his own defense, but he's been paying close attention today to the proceedings, looking at the exhibits on a special monitor and whispering a lot with his lawyers during the court proceedings.
FLORIDO: Carrie, this case involves allegations of political corruption and celebrities, so I'm curious if there are any interesting names on the witness list.
JOHNSON: Adrian, there are quite a few well-known people that could be called as witnesses in this case. There are people like former Trump political advisor Steve Bannon and casino mogul Steve Wynn. Another name on the witness list is the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. He starred in the movie called "The Wolf Of Wall Street," which was financed in part by a company with ties to Jho Low. But the most important witnesses in this case might be the FBI agents who led the investigation. FBI agent Robert Heuchling is on the stand now, walking the jury through emails and financial records, trying to show links between Michel and that billionaire, Low. And the testimony is moving through allegations about straw donors. This means allegedly paying people to donate to the Obama campaign, then reimbursing them with foreign sources of money. That agent is going to be back on the stand Friday for cross-examination.
FLORIDO: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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