It’s the strangest, starriest court case you might not yet have heard of.
Jury selection has begun in the trial of former Fugees musician Prakazrel “Pras” Michel – a case with global intrigue, a multi-billion dollar corruption scheme, and a fugitive Malaysian tycoon sometimes referred to as Asia’s “Great Gatsby”.
Prosecutors allege that Mr Michel, 50, took more than $100m (£81.4m) from Malaysian businessman Jho Low to convince former US President Donald Trump to abandon an investigation and allow the extradition of a prominent dissident to China.
Additionally, Mr Michel stands accused of making illegal contributions to Barack Obama’s 2012 US presidential campaign, using a network of third parties paid with foreign money.
He now faces charges including conspiracy, witness tampering, and a failure to register as a foreign agent. If convicted, he faces more than 20 years in prison. Mr Michel has denied any wilful wrongdoing in the case.
The trial is expected to last most of April – and could see Hollywood A-listers including Leonardo DiCaprio, Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon, and American casino mogul Steve Wynn testify as witnesses.
Here are some of the players and potential witnesses in the case, and how they’re involved.
At the heart of the trial is co-defendant Jho Low, a 41-year-old Malaysian businessman who is alleged to have stolen billions of dollars from his country’s sovereign wealth fund in the now-infamous 1MDB scheme, history’s largest embezzlement case. Some of the money was allegedly used to shower gifts on celebrities including Mr DiCaprio, Kim Kardashian, and model Miranda Kerr.
Rolling Stone has reported that Mr Low and Mr Michel first met at a Manhattan nightclub in 2006.
Court documents accuse Mr Low of using Mr Michel as a funnel for illegal money – as much as $100m – used in a bid to “obtain foreign access to, and influence with, high-ranking United States government officials for financial benefit”.
Investigators believe Mr Low wanted to use the money to help lobby the Trump administration and Justice Department to drop their investigation into Mr Low’s involvement in the 1MDB scheme, for which he was ultimately indicted by US prosecutors in 2018.
Mr Low is currently a fugitive and believed to be living in China, meaning that Mr Michel will face the charges alone during the trial.
The second plot of which Mr Michel and Mr Low are accused centres around Guo Wengui, a flashy, exiled Chinese billionaire and vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party.
From his temporary home in New York City – a posh apartment overlooking Central Park said to be worth $67.5m – Mr Guo had drawn the ire of China’s government by threatening to expose corruption and misdeeds among the country’s political elite. In the US, Mr Guo had become close to people within Mr Trump’s orbit, particularly former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Prosecutors believe that Mr Low and an unnamed Chinese government minister sought to use Mr Michel in a bid to help lobby the Trump administration for Mr Guo’s “removal and return” to his country. The plot was unsuccessful.
Mr Guo, however, now faces his own legal battle after being arrested by the FBI in February for allegedly masterminding a $1bn fraud conspiracy.
Guo Wengui and one of his business partners, Kin Ming Je, are accused of wire fraud, securities fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.
Among those named as potential witnesses in the case is actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who famously portrayed a real-life financial crook in the 2013 film “Wolf of Wall Street” – which was partially funded by a firm tied to Mr Low.
Bloomberg has reported that Mr Low was “especially generous” with Mr DiCaprio and donated a $3.2m Picasso to his charity, as well as a $9.2m piece from Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr DiCaprio – who has not been accused of any wrongdoing – reportedly later turned those items and others received from Mr Low over to authorities.
Notably, in 2019 Mr DiCaprio reportedly testified before a grand jury in Washington DC as part of the justice department’s investigation into the 1MDB case.
Another potential witness in the case is former casino mogul Steve Wynn, who stepped down as chairman and CEO of his Wynn Resorts company in 2018 amid accusations of sexual misconduct.
Citing legal filings, interviews with people familiar with the case and unreleased FBI documents, Bloomberg has reported authorities believe Mr Michel reached out to Mr Wynn for help convincing senior Trump officials to agree to Mr Guo’s extradition to China.
In a related case in May 2022, the justice department sued Mr Wynn in an effort to have him retroactively register as a foreign agent acting for China. The lawsuit specifically accused Mr Wynn of relaying Chinese government requests regarding Mr Guo and discussing Beijing’s interests with Mr Trump at a June 2017 dinner.
The case was dismissed by a federal judge in October 2022.
During the beginning of jury selection on 27 March, lawyers from both sides rattled off a list of potential witnesses that ranged from former government officials to celebrities.
The list included a number of prominent members of Mr Trump’s political orbit – including Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani – as well as his one-time national security advisor, H.R. McMaster and ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Other potential witnesses named include actors Jamie Foxx and Mark Wahlberg, director Martin Scorsese, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
None have been accused of any wrongdoing.
A number of other people involved in Mr Michel and Mr Low’s alleged plots, including Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy and George Higginbotham, a former justice department employee, have pleaded guilty in relation to the case. Mr Broidy was later pardoned by Mr Trump before he left the White House.
Source : BBC