Pras Michel, Rapper in the 1990s Hit Trio The Fugees, Convicted in Foreign Influence and Straw-Donor Scheme

Thursday, April 27, 2023

On April 27, 2023, Pras Michel, a rapper in the 1990s hit trio The Fugees, was convicted on 10 counts related to what prosecutors called a “clandestine foreign influence campaign scheme” funded by a wealthy Malaysian financier to peddle influence in the United States. In addition to the strict rules aimed at restricting foreign influence in American elections, the verdict also serves as another example of an illegal “straw-donor” scheme that has previously landed successful and wealthy Americans in jail.

Michel was accused of conspiring with the Malaysian businessman Jho Low, the subject of the New York Times bestselling book Billion Dollar Whale who masterminded a $4.5 billion fraud, to funnel millions of dollars into President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign through shell companies. According to prosecutors, the scheme involved making illegal campaign contributions, violating foreign lobbying laws, and attempting to buy access and influence with high-level U.S. officials.

Michel testified that Low had contacted him in 2012 for assistance, as he knew that Michel was a dedicated Obama supporter who had previously met President Obama. The rapper testified that the Malaysian financier wanted to take a photo with Obama, and he paid Michel $20 million to make it happen. In June 2012, Michel said he discussed the matter with millionaire businessman Frank R. White Jr., a top campaign-contribution bundler for Obama’s reelection bid. According to Michel, he was told to buy tickets to fundraising dinners, at $40,000 apiece, as a way for Low to get his photo op.  

According to prosecutors, Michel then spent $865,000 on tickets for Obama events in 2012. He bought them mostly under other people’s names, or so-called “straw donors”, to get around the individual contribution limit (which was $2,500 per individual during the 2011-12 election cycle). Using some of the funds he received from Low, Michel also donated $1.1 million in his own name to a political action committee for Obama.

This amounted roughly to $2 million of donations to the Obama operation. Michel testified that he kept the remaining $20 million because he believed it to be money he earned from Low in exchange for arranging the photos. The “straw donors,” he said, were his friends who purchased tickets using money that he had given them.  

Prosecutors argued, however, that these donations originated with Low and were illegal “conduit contribution” contributions. This meant that Michel funneled around $2 million (embezzled funds, in this instance) from a foreign nation into an American presidential campaign.  

The case against Michel was part of a broader investigation into Low and his efforts to influence American politics, which also involved the use of bribes and kickbacks to secure lucrative contracts for Malaysian companies. Low remains at large and is believed to be living in China, but the conviction of Michel represents a significant victory for the U.S. government in its efforts to hold those responsible for illegal foreign influence campaigns accountable. The conviction of Michel also serves as another warning to Americans who may be tempted to engage in similar illegal “straw-donor” schemes to get around the individual contribution limit.