Rapper Prakazrel “Pras” Michel, who rose to fame as a member of the hip-hop group Fugees, ruled out a plea deal Thursday on charges that he conspired with a fugitive Malaysian financier to illegally funnel foreign campaign contributions into the 2012 U.S. presidential election in a sprawling money laundering and corruption investigation.
The Grammy-winning musician told reporters after his appearance in federal court in Washington that he did not intend to plead guilty to allegations that he conspired to defraud the U.S. government by moving more than $21 million in overseas funds and funneling a portion into the election.
“No, I feel I’m totally innocent,” said Michel, accompanied by his attorney, Barry Pollack.
Last week a four-count indictment was unsealed against Michel, a Haitian-American musician who sold millions of albums in the 1990s with the Fugees, which included Lauryn Hill and Michel’s cousin, Wyclef Jean.
Michel has pleaded not guilty and indicated Thursday that he would turn to an artistic form — mentioning his nine-track release and noting it is due out in June — to address charges that he conspired with Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian financier previously charged by U.S. authorities.
Michel’s indictment alleges that he paid about $865,000 to 20 donors so they could contribute to a presidential fundraising committee and hide the source of the overseas money, and directed more than $1 million to a different, independent expenditure committee.
Low, who is at large, was previously indicted on charges of conspiring to launder billions of dollars stolen from 1MDB, a Malaysian development fund.
Money from the alleged conspiracy is said to have found its way into projects worldwide, with U.S. prosecutors seeking to seize some future proceeds of the award-winning movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” among other accounts. The U.S. investigation has also probed fundraisers and donors to both major U.S. political parties.
Prosecutors alleged in a civil forfeiture complaint last year that Michel and a former Justice Department official helped move money to support a lobbying effort aimed at ending the investigation, and they indicated that fundraiser and former Republican National Committee finance chairman Elliott Broidy also was involved.
Officials did not name Broidy in the filing but described conduct by an unidentified “Individual No. 1” that matches information contained in previously published reports about Broidy, and people familiar with the matter confirmed it is him. Broidy has not been charged.
In Michel’s indictment unsealed last week, the presidential fundraising committees that allegedly received funds were identified as “Political Committee A” and “Political Committee B,” and the candidate they were meant to benefit is listed as “Candidate A.” But the indictment suggests “Candidate A” was then-President Barack Obama, because Low at the time wanted “to attend events at the White House with Candidate A,” and the election at issue was in 2012.
In a statement in response to the new charges, attorneys for Low said, “Mr. Low is innocent — and he is presumed innocent under U.S. law. The allegations against Mr. Low have no basis in fact: Mr. Low has never made any campaign contributions directly or indirectly in the U.S. and he unequivocally denies any involvement in or knowledge of the alleged activities.”
Michel, who appeared in court in an open-collared, untucked blue dress shirt and dark blazer, denim pants and sneakers, has injected a measure of celebrity into the financial-crimes investigation.
His remarks Thursday came after an initial scheduling hearing before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington.
Michel had been denied permission to skip the appearance, and the multimillionaire record producer, songwriter and actor based in California drew a mild rebuke from the judge.
“Let me just say Mr. Michel, these are serious charges. I don’t know much of the merits of the charges, but I want you to participate in this case,” Kollar-Kotelly said to him, after denying a request by his attorney to allow Michel to skip appearing at a hearing set for July 11.
“I want you to make informed decisions,” said the judge, a 1997 Clinton appointee, before adding that she may reconsider requiring Michel’s attendance at later stages of the case.
After the hearing, Michel said, “My lawyer is going to handle the whole trial. I am going to be in full compliance.”
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report