Why Leonardo DiCaprio testified at trial of Fugees rapper Pras Michel

The Oscar-winning actor and rapper both have ties to a Malaysian businessman at the centre of a major international scandal

Leonardo DiCaprio is the latest celebrity to be involved with a high profile court case. Reuters
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Leonardo DiCaprio testified Monday at the trial of former Fugees rapper Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, who is accused of conspiring to funnel money from a Malaysian state fund to Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

Here is a look at the main characters in the international scandal and the fund that fuelled it.

Pras Michel

Michel, 50, was a founding member of the influential 1990s hip-hop group the Fugees, along with bandmates Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean, who had major hits with Ready or Not and Killing Me Softly With His Song.

Prosecutors allege Michel conspired with Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho to funnel money from 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad), a Malaysian state fund established in 2009 to promote development, to Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign through straw donors.

Prosecutors have said as much as $100 million went through Michel, a New York native, who has maintained his innocence. His trial began Thursday at US District Court in Washington.

Low Taek Jho

DiCaprio testified in the case because of his ties to Low, the alleged architect of the scandal, who has also been indicted in the US, but remained an international fugitive as Michel went to trial.

The Malaysian financier who helped oversee 1MDB used it to bankroll an extravagant and celebrity-centric lifestyle. He is alleged to have steered billions toward property in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, a superyacht, a private jet and many other splashy purchases.

The fund paid for a birthday party for Low, where performers included Jamie Foxx, Chris Brown, Ludacris, Busta Rhymes and Pharrell Williams. Britney Spears jumped out of a cake.

Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, has known Michel since the 1990s, and Low professionally and socially for years. The Oscar-winning actor testified that he met and befriended Low at a birthday party in Las Vegas in 2010. The businessman gave DiCaprio gifts, which he has since returned, including a Pablo Picasso painting valued at $3.2 million and a Jean-Michel Basquiat collage valued at $9.2 million. Low has been a regular donor to DiCaprio's charitable foundation.

Low would use money from the fund to finance the Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street, which starred DiCaprio. The actor testified that he had his team and the studio vet Low first, and they found him to be "a legitimate business person wanting to invest in the movie". The film's producers included Riza Aziz, stepson of then-Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.

Najib Razak

Razak was Malaysia's deputy prime minister from 2004 until 2009 and prime minister from 2009 until 2018. He became chair of 1MDB when it was established in 2009 with the purported aim of increasing foreign investment. It quickly racked up more than $12 billion in debt. The fund turned into the epicentre of a massive international corruption scandal. The US Justice Department has said more than half of $8 billion raised by bond sales was stolen and siphoned off, a revelation uncovered in 2015 when thousands of documents were leaked.

Najib, who investigators said took hundreds of millions to fund his re-election campaign and pay off politicians, has denied any wrongdoing and fired the attorney general investigating him.

Malaysian general elections in 2018 ousted Najib and his party. In 2020, Najib was found guilty of seven charges of corruption and sentenced to 12 years in prison. His appeals have been unsuccessful, but he was acquitted of another charge at his most recent trial.

Other players

In 2020, Goldman Sachs acknowledged its role in the embezzlement scheme and paid out more than $2.3 billion as part of a plea deal with the US government. The firm also reached a $3.9 billion settlement with the government of Malaysia. In March, a former Goldman Sachs banker named Roger Ng was sentenced in Brooklyn to 10 years in prison for his role in plundering the fund.

A top fundraiser for former president Donald Trump and the Republican Party, Elliott Broidy, was charged with running an illegal lobbying campaign on Low’s behalf to get the Justice Department to drop its investigation into 1MDB’s looting. Broidy pleaded guilty, but was then pardoned by Trump, so was never sentenced.

Updated: April 04, 2023, 5:09 AM