Bloomberg Businessweek (March 6, 2023)
Год выпуска: March 6, 2023
Автор: Bloomberg Businessweek USA
Издательство: «Bloomberg Businessweek USA»
Формат: PDF (журнал на английском языке)
Количество страниц: 64
The Fugee, the Fugitive and the FBI
How rapper Pras Michel got entangled in one of the century’s great financial scandals
The phone call awoke Pras Michel in the middle of a spring night in 2017. His “cousin from China” needed to meet, the woman on the line said. The caller was an ex-girlfriend who Michel, a rapper, producer and member of legendary hiphop group the Fugees, hadn’t spoken to in years. He grew up in a Haitian family in New Jersey and doesn’t have a cousin from China, but he knew what the message meant.
Michel dressed and called a car to take him to the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan. The front desk clerk handed him a note. It instructed him to exit the hotel and circle the block twice, scanning to see if he was being tailed. Michel did as he was told and returned to the clerk, who gave him a room key. He went up to an empty suite and waited.
After about 25 minutes there was a knock on the door. An austere-looking Chinese security agent in a suit gave Michel a second room key and told him to go to the penthouse. Inside, another agent took Michel’s phones and placed them in a pouch. A table and two chairs sat in the middle of the room.
“They can’t kill me in the Four Seasons,” Michel said to himself.
Soon a short, chubby man with wavy hair arrived, surrounded by more security personnel. Michel had met him before. He was Sun Lijun, China’s vice minister of public security. Sun began shouting in Chinese. An interpreter translated for Michel: “Who the f— do the US government think they are?”
Sun said he’d come to the US for sensitive negotiations with President Donald Trump’s administration but had failed to secure a high-level meeting. For three years, Beijing had been targeting Chinese nationals living in America who it viewed as threats. Agents had surveilled emigres, visited their houses and detained family members still in China, aiming to persuade the targets to return home, where some would be charged with serious crimes. Called “Operation Fox Hunt,” the covert repatriation strategy had infuriated US officials.
Of particular concern to Sun was Guo Wengui, a real estate billionaire living on a temporary visa in New York. From his home overlooking Central Park, Guo had enraged the Chinese government by making a series of scandalous claims to the media, purporting to reveal the assets of top Communist Party officials. China was prepared to release two American citi-zens-one of them pregnant-being kept in the country under a so-called exit ban if the US deported Guo.
Behind the scenes, the US government had been agitating for their return. But when Sun and his entourage arrived in Washington, hoping to make a deal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was traveling and unable to meet with them, according to an email Sessions wrote in May 2017. Unsure what to do next, Sun sought Michel’s help. (The Department of Justice declined to comment.)
“This is way above my pay grade,” Michel said after Sun laid out the situation. “But if I were you, I would at least send the pregnant woman back as a token of good faith.”
“You think so?” Sun asked, now calmer and speaking in English. An agent handed Sun a telephone. After a brief conversation, he turned again to Michel. “When do you want her back?”
Michel, who’d won two Grammys with the Fugees before going on to a solo career, was unsure about the usual time frame for international hostage repatriations. “Tomorrow?” he asked.
“The weekend is no good.”
By Tuesday the woman was back in the US.
About two months later an FBI special agent interrupted Michel at brunch near his apartment in S0H0. The agent had 12 photos of Chinese officials and many questions: Who did Michel meet at the Four Seasons? Who else had contacted him from the Chinese government? And of course: How had a famous rapper and record producer found himself in the middle of a high-stakes negotiation between global superpowers?
Michel’s audience with a top Chinese security official, reported here for the first time, was a flashpoint in one of the most unusual political influence campaigns in recent memory. His involvement began by chance, around 2006, when he met a baby-faced Malaysian businessman named Jho Low. Low was a globe-trotting financier whose lavish spending would put him on familiar terms with dozens of A-list entertainers. But by 2016, US investigators believed he’d masterminded the embezzlement of billions of dollars from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, blowing much of it on artwork, real estate and gifts for celebrity friends including Leonardo DiCaprio and Kim Kardashian. Few were as close to Low as Michel: Prosecutors seized $95 million that they alleged originated with Low from Michel’s accounts.
With US authorities closing in and moving to confiscate his assets, Low needed help. He turned first to Michel, hoping to cash in on the star’s connections to President Barack Obama, for whom Michel had raised money during the 2012 campaign. Next, Low turned to China, one of the few countries that could protect him from the long reach of American law enforcement. (Low didn’t reply to requests for comment. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it was “unaware” of the events described in this story. Sun, who received a suspended death sentence for corruption offenses last year, couldn’t be reached.)
To investigate this wild tale of celebrity and political intrigue, Bloomberg Businessweek drew on legal filings, interviews with people close to the case and a cache of previously undisclosed FBI and Justice Department documents. The records show how Michel, at Low’s request, helped assemble a team of Republican influencers-including fundraiser Elliott Broidy, businesswoman Nickie Lum Davis and casino magnate Steve Wynn-capable of reaching the highest levels of the Trump administration as it took hold of the US government. Soon, all would be targeted by agents from the FBI’s international corruption division as well as federal prosecutors from Honolulu to New York.
The US didn’t catch Low, but it did squeeze his associates. Many agreed to cooperate and pursue plea deals with prosecutors. Michel declined, and the consequences for him could be dire. Federal prosecutors charged him in 2021 with 10 offenses stemming from his dealings with Low, ranging from conspiracy to witness tampering and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.
Michel maintains his innocence and has decided to fight the charges. “The common thread that runs through this is that Pras was trying to get the benefits for the United States that were being offered by Minister Sun,” says his attorney, David Kenner. “Pras’s motivation was to try to assist the United States.” Kenner adds that Michel’s relationship with Low was rooted in a desire to secure investment for entertainment projects.
The trial is scheduled to begin in Washington in late March. If convicted, Michel could go to federal prison for decades...
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