Jho Low paid rapper Pras US$20m to get picture with Obama

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Money from Jho Low was to arrange for a picture with Obama, not campaign donation.

Grammy-winning rapper Pras Michel told jurors on Tuesday at his illegal-lobbying trial that the party-boy Malaysian tycoon Jho Low – once a friend and now a fugitive – paid him US$20mil (RM88.6mil) to get a photo with President Barack Obama in 2012.

Michel told a federal jury in Washington that Low hired him to be a “celebrity surrogate” to get the photo. The rapper is accused of using straw donors to funnel illegal donations from Low into Obama’s campaign. Prosecutors say he later illegally lobbied President Donald Trump’s administration to drop US probes of Low’s alleged looting of billions of dollars from the Malaysian development fund 1MDB.

Michel, a member of the hip-hop band the Fugees, said he witnessed Low’s wild lifestyle filled with celebrities, nightclub, models and free-flowing cash. He described the tycoon as a “wealthy man willing to do anything, spend any type of money” to get his photo with Obama, but that Low’s reputation made him “too hot” to get an invitation to fundraisers. Michel said he initially agreed to help, but at a price.

“I basically asked for $1mil to begin to think about how I would get this photo,” Michel said as his lawyer questioned him. “I was going to try.”

Ultimately, Low paid Michel $20mil over nine months, which led to the tycoon getting photographed with Obama at a White House Christmas party, the rapper said.

During the first three weeks of the trial, prosecutors alleged Michel, 50, was driven by greed and pocketed $18mil of the $20mil that Low paid to gain access to Obama. They also say he made at least $70mil more for his role in a scheme to lobby the Trump administration to drop its investigations of Low. Michel was later indicted along with Low, who remains at large and is believed to be in China.

Michel said he never made any donations on behalf of Low and didn’t believe the political donations were illegal. But on cross examination, prosecutor John Keller got Michel to admit the money came from Low, and that the rapper reimbursed his friends for the political donations they made to support Obama.

“Once Jho Low gave me the money, it was my money,” Michel said. He added: “It’s what the market is willing to bear. Give me my money, and I’ll try to figure it out.”

Michel said the money was a gift, not income, and he was free to do what he liked with it.

“I would say it’s free money,” Michel said. “I didn’t work for it. I was having fun trying to get a photo for President Obama.”

Keller showed jurors letters that a Michel lawyer wrote in 2019 to three friends who were straw donors, saying they should regard the money from Michel as loans, not gifts. Michel said he regretted the letters.

“That was a bad idea,” Michel said. “I was scared. I just did something stupid.”

Michel said he helped with a July 2012 fundraiser for Obama in Miami, where the entry was $40,000 a head, insisting he used his own money – not Low’s – to pay for three Haitian friends to attend. But Michel said he couldn’t convince Obama’s campaign to let Low attend that event or another one that September.

“My understanding is that the campaign thought he was too hot,” Michel said. “They didn’t want the optics at that time. At that point, Jho Low was a party guy – Vegas, champagne, parties with Paris Hilton. The campaign just didn’t want that.”

Low didn’t attend the second event, where Low’s father sat next to Obama. That event was at the Washington house of Obama fundraiser Frank White Jr., who asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify at Michel’s trial. Jurors saw several photos of Obama at the event.

After Michel discussed the holiday party photo, he answered questions about his efforts to push the US to extradite Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, a vocal critic of Beijing. Michel said he met voluntarily several times with FBI agents to discuss Guo and three Americans being held hostage in China, including a pregnant woman.

Michel denied that he acted as an agent for China in the Guo extradition push. He also said he never knew he had to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for helping to try to scuttle the US probe of Low.

Jurors heard Michel’s lawyers read a transcript of White’s grand jury testimony.

They also heard from Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Session, who testified as a defence witness. Michel attorney David Kenner asked him about two Justice Department meetings involving Chinese authorities. One involved China’s request to extradite Guo. Sessions testified he couldn’t remember Guo’s name “had it not been refreshed to me.”

Sessions sounded hazy on the meeting he attended.

“Sometime there was a meeting at the Department of Justice that I believe I participated in,” said Sessions. He was done in 11 minutes.