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Musician Pras Michel undergoes withering cross examination about foreign money

Grammy-winning musician Pras Michel told a jury that millions of dollars he accepted from a fugitive billionaire amounted to "free money" he pocketed for trying to get the man a photo with then-President Obama.

Under withering cross examination, Michel acknowledged he used some of that money to pay for friends to attend $40,000-a-plate fundraisers for the Obama campaign in 2012, essentially funneling illegal foreign funds into the American election system.

Years later, after FBI agents visited his friends, Michel sent the friends letters characterizing those gifts as loans and demanding repayment amid threats to sue them. He said he relied on advice from an attorney at the time, and that he depended on his financial adviser for advice regarding the billionaire's money, which he reported as a gift to avoid paying taxes.

"Every time you lied or did something illegal, it's on someone else?" asked prosecutor John Keller.

No, Michel replied, later adding that he had "panicked" when the FBI came knocking.

"I was scared, I did something stupid," Michel said.

Michel faces nearly a dozen criminal charges stemming from his ties to the billionaire Jho Low, who is on the run from justice after being accused of stealing billions from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.

For the first time in the trial, Michel took the witness stand in his own defense Tuesday. Outside the presence of the jury, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly asked him whether he had enough time to consider his decision to testify.

"After consulting with my attorneys and the universe, I have decided I will testify," he told the judge.

Michel tested the microphone before explaining to a jury in the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. his journey from a low-income household in New Jersey to "global stardom" with the hip hop group Fugees, which he said was named in homage to his parents' ties to Haiti.

"We were representing for everyone who basically felt like an outcast, didn't fit in," Michel said.

The band hit the bigtime and Michel said he "went from being on the streets of Newark to Park Avenue overnight."

Trouble started after he sought to reinvent himself as a political insider. The Justice Department says he collected nearly $100 million from Low to influence the Obama and Trump administrations--first to buy access and secure a photo of Low with President Obama, then to try to press the Trump administration to abandon civil and criminal probes of Low.

Michel initially told the jury that he didn't know it was illegal to pay for others to attend political fundraising events. But prosecutor Keller showed him language on an Obama campaign form that spelled out the federal election rules. Michel said he hadn't read the document.

Then, Keller asked about two of Michel's friends, who later returned the money he gave them after consulting with their own attorneys about the legality of those payments, and about an Obama fundraiser telling Michel any money he donated had to be "legitimately your money."

At one point, documents that the prosecutor was using to cross examine Michel did not display on screens for the jury. At least one juror made a hand gesture to signal the court about the technical problem. Then, when the documents showed up on their screens, nearly all of the jurors peered closely at them.

Defense lawyer David Kenner repeatedly objected during the cross examination, but he generally did not prevail with the judge or give his client much of a respite from the barrage of prosecutor questions.

During his direct examination, Michel spoke expansively about his meetings with "A-list celebrities" and the lavish display of wealth from Low. For instance, at their first encounter in 2006 at a New York club, Low appeared to one-up Wall Street moneymen in the crowd by offering to buy the entire bar's supply of champagne, wine and other libations.

"The crowd just went nuts and almost right on cue, the DJ came on and you hear 'boom boom bop boom boom bop, we will we will rock you,'" Michel said.

Michel also spoke about his respect for former President Obama, whom he wanted to help secure a second term in the White House.

"I got some free money, I figured why not just pay it forward and also to help the cause...help President Obama get re-elected," Michel said.

Pointing out that Low spent money to attract celebrities to his parties and pay for Britney Spears to jump out of his birthday cake, Michel said he figured those things weren't "even all that important" compared to a photo with a historical figure such as Obama.

"It's what the market is willing to bear," Michel said.

The prosecutor's cross examination will continue Wednesday.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.