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What you need to know as the Pras Michel case goes to the jury

<i>Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/FILE</i><br/>Pras Michel
Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/FILE
Pras Michel

By Holmes Lybrand, CNN

Jurors will begin deliberating Monday morning in the case against former Fugees member Pras Michel, who the Justice Department has accused of being the linchpin of an international, multimillion-dollar conspiracy.

The three-week trial featured testimony from a diverse cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and took members of the jury on a winding, seven-year narrative of alleged corruption, greed and failed conspiracies.

Here’s what to know:

The case

Michel is accused of acting as an unregistered agent of China and Malaysian billionaire Jho Low, working in the US to gain political connections and influence.

Prosecutors contend that Michel was paid millions by Low to secure access to both the Obama and Trump administrations and that he attempted to use those connections to advocate on Low and China’s behalf.

In 2012, Low paid Michel $20 million to help Low get a picture with then-President Barack Obama, Michel testified last week. Michel funneled over $800,000 of that money to the Obama Victory Fund through various straw donors at several events attended by the President, prosecutors say.

Years later, according to prosecutors, Michel would receive over $100 million from Low to help advocate for the release of Chinese dissident Guo Wengui from the US to China and for the US government to stop its investigation into Low.

Michel — after learning of the Justice Department’s investigation, prosecutors say — sent letters in 2019 to the straw donors he passed money through, telling them the money was a loan they needed to pay back or face legal action.

The charges

Michel faces 10 charges including conspiracy, witness tampering and failing to register as an agent of China.

If convicted on each charge, Michel could face over a decade in prison. He has denied the accusations and pleaded not guilty.

Alleged conspirators

Others that prosecutors say were involved with Michel in the alleged conspiracy have pleaded guilty, including George Higginbotham, who was employed at the time as a senior congressional affairs specialist at the Justice Department, and Elliott Broidy, a top Republican fundraiser.

Higginbotham pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiring to make false statements to a bank. The former DOJ employee, according to the agreement, helped transfer tens of millions of dollars meant for lobbying efforts to stop US investigations into Low’s alleged role in embezzling billions of dollars from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.

For his part, Broidy pleaded guilty in 2020 to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent in the secret lobbying campaign to try and influence then-President Donald Trump to drop the investigation into Low and 1MDB. Trump pardoned Broidy in January 2021.

Low, Michel’s co-defendant, is believed to be in China.

The defense

Michel testified during the weeks-long trial that he viewed the funds given to him by Low as “free money” and chose to spend it how he wanted, not at the direction of Low.

The former rapper testified he wanted to support Obama, who he called a historic candidate, and didn’t know he was breaking any laws by giving money to others for them to, in turn, donate to the campaign.

Again and again, Michel contested that money given to him by Low and other foreign nationals was either for his help in trying to get Low a picture with Obama or for investments into a media business he was building.

Michel also told the jury he was simply a connector, helping Low find counsel for civil charges brought by the US government and by letting government officials, including FBI agents, know that China wanted Guo extradited.

Defense attorney David Kenner stressed in closing arguments that there was no evidence Michel had willfully or deliberately violated any laws in taking the money and was acting largely on the advice of his financial manager and attorneys at the time.

Making money, Kenner argued, is not a crime.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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