WASHINGTON — Defense lawyers for Pras Michel, the Grammy-winning rapper and producer who has been charged with making illegal campaign contributions and failure to register as an agent of China, began presenting their case Monday in federal court.
After the government rested its case, Michel’s lead lawyer, David Kenner, delivered a 25-minute statement that leaned into his client's upbringing and commercial success — a stark contrast to the government's approach in late March when federal prosecutors gave their opening statement.
While prosecutors last month alluded to Michel’s “successful album” in the ’90s, they generally avoided discussing his celebrity status. Kenner took the opposite approach Monday, reminding jurors that Michel had grown up in poverty before he founded the Fugees with Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean and achieved wealth and fame by age 25.
Kenner then described the first couple of “chance” meetings between Michel and his absent co-defendant, Jho Low, a Malaysian billionaire who is suspected of stealing billions from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. Low has not been arrested and remains an international fugitive. Michel saw Low spend “ridiculous” amounts of money on celebrity friends, real estate, entertainment companies and other ventures, Kenner said.
Michel has been charged with felony counts alleging his participation in a conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions using foreign money, witness tampering and failure to register as a foreign agent of the Chinese government. The most serious of the charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Michel has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In their opening statement, prosecutors portrayed Michel as cash-strapped and willing to do the bidding of a foreign government in exchange for a payday. Kenner did not deny that Michel was paid for work he did with Low, but he told jurors Monday there was nothing illegal about the payments.
“The evidence will show that making money, even if you consider it greedy, is not a crime,” he said.
Kenner also told jurors that Michel, Low and others involved in their alleged scheme to lobby the Trump administration never agreed to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act by concealing their efforts.
“Such a conspiracy never, ever existed,” Kenner said.
Kenner also stressed to jurors that the Foreign Agent Registration Act is violated when people fail to disclose political work on behalf of foreign interests.
“This is not a James Bond spying kind of statute,” he said. “It’s not cloak and dagger kind of stuff.”
Michel, years past the peak of his fame as an entertainer when he began working with Low, was “transitioning” into work in the political arena, and no one in his orbit told him that he needed to register as a foreign agent, Kenner said.