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Former Fugees musician Pras Michel found guilty of 10 criminal charges

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A jury in Washington, D.C., has convicted rapper Pras Michel on charges including conspiracy and witness tampering. The Grammy-winning musician attracted attention from the FBI as part of an alleged campaign to influence two American presidents. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been covering the trial.

Carrie, let's talk about this. People might remember Pras Michel as part of the hip-hop trio Fugees. How did he get caught up in this foreign influence operation?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, the group Fugees had a superpopular album back in the 1990s - "The Score," which is still popular on streaming today. But by the early 2000s, Pras Michel was trying to reinvent himself as a political power player and a businessman. And prosecutors say he was spending a lot of money and looking for a big payday. That all led him to a Malaysian billionaire named Jho Low, who was at the center of this trial. Low is on the run from Justice, so Michel stood trial alone here in D.C.

BLOCK: This sounds like a pretty tangled case. Carrie, can you break down the charges?

JOHNSON: It's complicated. Michel faced 10 criminal charges, and he was convicted on all of them. On the most serious counts, he could face as many as 20 years in prison when he's sentenced. It started back in 2012 when the Justice Department says he used Jho Low's illegal foreign money to buy seats for people at fundraisers to help reelect then-President Obama. And then, years later, after the FBI started investigating Jho Low for allegedly stealing money, Low wanted Michel and others to help him convince the Trump White House to go easy on Low and drop that investigation. One part of the scheme was to try to get Trump to send a dissident living in the U.S. back to China to curry favor with the Chinese government. But the common thread here, really, is that Michel collected about a hundred million dollars from Jho Low to try to influence two different U.S. presidential administrations.

BLOCK: And, Carrie, you were in the courtroom when the defendant, Pras Michel, testified this month. How did that go?

JOHNSON: Ah, it was a little rough at first. He talked about growing up in New Jersey with very religious parents and then, almost overnight, going from the streets of Newark to Park Avenue when Fugees hit it big. Michel talked about lavish displays of wealth, big parties with lots of celebrities, and he name-dropped several of his friends. But then, he faced a really withering cross-examination. He seemed to blame his lawyer and his financial adviser. And he said he thought this money from Jho Low was basically free money. The idea that paying $20 million for a photo with Obama was what the market would bear. Now, taking the witness stand as a defendant is a pretty risky move. It really may have backfired here in this case.

BLOCK: And the jury didn't take long to reach its verdict, just a couple days of deliberation. Any reaction from Pras Michel?

JOHNSON: He didn't say anything outside of the courthouse to reporters. But his lawyer, David Kenner, made some brief remarks. Here's what Kenner had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID KENNER: We will certainly appeal this case. This is not over. I remain very, very confident that we will ultimately prevail in this matter.

JOHNSON: Kenner has raised some concerns about jury selection and some of the judge's rulings, which could form the basis of that appeal.

BLOCK: Carrie, as you've been covering this case, what stood out for you?

JOHNSON: Oh, the witnesses. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified. And then, there was the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. He came in under heavy security. His movie "The Wolf Of Wall Street" was funded by the billionaire Jho Low. And he testified Low told him he wanted to spend 20- or $30 million to help reelect Obama back in 2012. That all turned out to be pretty important since injecting foreign money into the campaign system was a key part of this case against Pras Michel.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.