The Perfect Enemy | The Feds Say Pras Is a Foreign Agent. Now the Fugee Tells His Side - Rolling Stone
February 15, 2024

The Feds Say Pras Is a Foreign Agent. Now the Fugee Tells His Side – Rolling Stone

The Feds Say Pras Is a Foreign Agent. Now the Fugee Tells His Side  Rolling Stone

I t was one of those beautiful and unseasonably warm fall days in New York City, November 2019, when Pras Michel, founding member of the Fugees, documentary filmmaker, and man about town, was headed to a lunch date, a first date with a woman he hadn’t met before. Around noon, he walked out of his SoHo apartment building and onto the street, which was busy in all the typical New York ways: There were construction workers, a guy with a jackhammer, a fiber-optic telephone worker, people window shopping at the Versace store. He turned right and didn’t make it 20 feet before, in his peripheral vision, he saw a tall man point to him, and suddenly those normal people acting in their normal phone-company and window-shopper ways surrounded him. Out of a parked car on the other side of the street emerged a man in a gray suit.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked as he approached Pras. “Special Agent Robert Heuchling. Everything’s cool, but we have a search warrant to take your phones.” 

Four FBI agents, two in business suits, two in their disguises, followed Pras into his lobby, frisked him for weapons, read him his rights, and explained that they were confiscating his iPhone and Blackberry. They instructed him to remove the passwords. “Take it,” he said. “I have nothing to hide. Take it, whatever.”

The whole process in the lobby took about 45 minutes, at which point Pras realized he had not only stood up his date, but had no way of telling her what had happened. When he got his phone back a few weeks later, he saw that the damage was done. 

“She cursed me out on text,” he recalls. “I tried, but what do you say? ‘I had a sting operation on me?’ Who’s gonna believe that? Who the fuck is gonna believe that story? My lawyer almost didn’t believe it, until he heard it from the FBI.” 

Pras probably should have known that the feds had a drop on him. He’d already been indicted once,  and the FBI swarm was just the latest surreal moment of a sprawling, 11-year-long Justice Department investigation that followed Pras from Washington, D.C., to Bangkok to Hong Kong, and has already produced guilty pleas or immunity deals for four others (including a former finance chair of the Republican National Committee) in an alleged conspiracy to take hundreds of millions of embezzled Malaysian dollars in exchange for running a foreign-influence campaign against the U.S. government. 

Later, Pras thought about the missed signals on that warm fall day. “I remembered, the jackhammer was never on.” But the window shoppers and the telephone people fooled him. “I’m not Jason Bourne being all highly alert to some shit that doesn’t feel right, you know what I mean? I wasn’t trained in Quantico.… I couldn’t understand what was it about me that they felt they had to do that.” 

PRAS MICHEL, BORN Prakazrel Samuel Michel, invited me in February to his airy and austere SoHo loft to discuss these matters publicly for the first time. From the seventh floor, huge picture windows offer a timeless view of old wooden water towers and iron fire escapes dotting the rooflines of downtown Manhattan. There is one red couch, where Pras sits, one blue chair for me, and separated by about 50 feet of prime New York City floor space, a wall of shelves displaying his honors: two Grammy Awards, an Emmy, two MTV Video Music Awards, photos of Pras as a young child with his Haitian-immigrant parents growing up in New Jersey, a plaque from the Haitian American Professional Coalition, and several photos of him with former President Barack Obama. One photo, signed by Obama, shows Pras in a dark suit sitting on a sumptuous sofa in the Oval Office next to Frank White Jr., a wealthy Democratic fundraiser, Pras’ hands raised as he tells the president a story.  

“I used to think getting into politics was a way to try to help people,” Pras says. “When you think about it, what the fuck do I really need to be in politics for? There’s no reason — my life is great — if it’s not to try to help people.”

If anyone in his apartment today — myself, Pras’ publicist, Pras’ longtime documentary filmmaker — needs help, it’s Pras himself. The fact is, Pras Michel is in trouble. At 50 years old, and for the first time in his life, he’s in trouble with the law. He’s got issues with the banks, he’s got problems with his credit-card company. He had to surrender his passport and believes he’s under government surveillance. Friends are drifting away. “I’m in the mud,” he says. After a four-hour interview, weeks of follow-up conversations, and reading through piles of legal motions, I can confidently report that Pras has landed at the center of a remarkable legal clusterfuck. He faces a towering criminal indictment that, putting the specific charges aside for a moment, is part of a decade-long investigation that implicates two of the past three presidential administrations, Leonardo DiCaprio, Goldman Sachs, casino tycoon Steve Wynn, the aforementioned Frank White Jr., plus like a bad Rat Pack reboot — Oceans 14: Mar-a-Lago! — a screwy crew of scheming political donors and wannabe operatives who got in over their heads, broke some laws (wittingly or not), and have since rolled under government pressure and agreed to testify against Pras apparently to save their own hides. 

Pras’ troubles began in November 2018, when the government, through the constitutionally debatable authority known as civil-asset forfeiture, seized about $74 million from him that was held in four separate bank accounts. (These included a trust account held by his then-lawyer, who was moonlighting for Pras, advising him on these schemes involving the Department of Justice, while, get this, simultaneously working a day job at the Department of Justice.) The water came to a full boil in May 2019 with the first indictment on four criminal counts for illegal contributions to the 2012 Obama reelection campaign. The government offered Pras a deal: If he pleaded guilty, they would return a small fraction of the total seized, and his problems would go away. He refused the offer. He didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong. Two years later, in what his defense team argues was a clear act of “governmental and prosecutorial misconduct,” the government slammed Pras with a superseding indictment that added eight more criminal charges, including bank fraud, concealment of material facts, witness tampering, violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and working as an unregistered agent of the People’s Republic of China.  

Complex as the case may sound, all of it traces back to Pras’ relationship with one man: a 41-year-old Malaysian who graduated from the Wharton School of Business in 2005 and promptly executed one of the biggest embezzlement schemes in the history of money. By the time he was done, Low Taek Jho, a.k.a. Jho Low, a.k.a. the Asian Great Gatsby, had siphoned more than $4.5 billion from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund known as 1MDB (1 Malaysian Development Berhad). Much of the loot was slipped to Malaysian officials as bribes. A lot of it was showered on Low’s celebrity friends: heaps paid for the cartoonish opulence — a superyacht, mansions and penthouses, chartered airliners retrofitted as nightclubs, jewelry for supermodels and politicians’ wives — that built Low’s legend during his historic spree. From Los Angeles to Dubai, the stolen cash bought more than just things; it provided Low with the validity and influence he needed to keep the ruse going. 

For the Justice Department, Pras’ case is the latest in an ambitious, years-long effort to track down all the dirty 1MDB money and clean up Low’s mess, the white-collar-crimes equivalent of scrubbing every last oil-slicked seabird and starfish after a tanker runs aground. Government prosecutors started out in 2016 by seizing the assets purchased with the scam money, more than a billion dollars’ worth of real estate in Manhattan, London, and Beverly Hills; a $35 million Bombardier jet; artwork by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet. In 2018, the feds went directly at Low and the bankers who facilitated (and profited from) his grand theft. Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that conspired with Low by underwriting $6.5 billion in bonds to prime the 1MDB pumps (and raked in $600 million in the process), paid the government $2.9 billion in fines for its central role in the scheme. In civil court, the government was intent on collecting the money and restoring it to the innocent, ripped-off people of Malaysia. But with its recent criminal cases against two culpable Goldman executives (one of them, Roger Ng, was sentenced March 9 to 10 years in prison; the other, Tim Leissner, is awaiting sentencing), the Justice Department put all of Low’s former associates on notice. Prison time is very much in play. 

Were Pras to be found guilty on all counts, he could go away for 22 years. Unlikely, but not impossible. After all, this is the stated aim of the indictments, both of which notably name Low and Pras as co-defendants, even though Low remains at large and is widely believed to be living in China under the protection of Xi Jinping’s government. By preemptively handcuffing them together, the Justice Department presents the former Fugee as no mere bystander caught up in Low’s vast criminal enterprise, but his principal accomplice.

When Pras’ trial begins March 27 in the U.S. Federal Court for the District of Columbia, the jury will hear conflicting versions of an inherently confusing story. They will adjourn to their jury room to debate the finer points of federal election law, ponder the legislative spirit of FARA, and do their best to determine what Pras did differently than many others involved who got off easier. According to the government, Pras and Low together pulled the strings of an intricate and elaborate international conspiracy — first, to get Obama reelected in 2012, second, to coerce the Trump administration into dropping the 1MDB investigations, and lastly, to promote a covert campaign of Chinese influence in Washington. To this, the defense will counter, with the aid of 2.7 million pages of discovery documents, that Pras has only ended up here — as the single, suitable fall guy for the crimes of many — because he refused to play ball and take the plea. 

Whichever side prevails, the case of The United States v. Prakazrel Michel, Low Taek Jho is likely to tell a story bigger than any of the big names involved: one that looks a lot like unequal application of the law. After all, it wasn’t Pras who created Low. It was Low’s unprecedented largesse, combined with skillful and hypervigilant leverage-seeking, that cleared his paths to infiltrate Hollywood, Washington, and the global banking system. In each sanctified realm, Low faced little resistance as he merged his ill-gotten riches with the customary pay-to-play norms that rule American society, particularly at the upper reaches of wealth, glamour, and power. 

BEFORE THIS INFAMY found Pras, there was fame. 

Pras grew up in Irvington, New Jersey, a tiny town bordering Newark, New Jersey. At the Michel house, Sundays were about three things: listening to the news from Haiti, going to Haitian church, and for Pras, watching music videos. He was born in New York, when Haiti was still ruled by the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. His parents had left Haiti behind, but politics followed. 

In the mid-Eighties, Pras heard a commotion and his mother crying. An uncle, his mother’s brother, who was pro-Duvalier, had been murdered. The gunman was another uncle, his father’s brother, who was anti-Duvalier and, according to his parents, working as a CIA asset. “That was his assignment, to kill my mother’s brother,” Pras says. “That’s how I really got into politics. He shot him in the mouth, down in Panama somewhere, OK?” 

As a kid, Pras’ closest friend was Wyclef Jean. But after one year together at a decrepit Newark public high school, Pras’ mom sent him to live with another uncle, in the neighboring town of Maplewood, so he could enroll at the well-funded, arts-friendly Columbia High School. 

Columbia High was fertile ground for young performers. To fulfill his sports requirement, Pras signed up for modern dance, where he didn’t mind being the only guy in the class. As a sophomore, he already had a vision for a hip-hop act with himself and two girls. “This is the beginning of the Fugees,” he says. At dance class, he heard about an eighth-grader who was an incredible singer. Lauryn Hill’s older brother, who was in Pras’ class, made the introduction. “We went to meet Lauryn at their house, to ask her mom permission [for her] to join my group.”

Fugees in 1996; from left, Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras. Paul Natkin/Getty Images

When I ask him about the Fugees, a heavier kind of quiet settles over Pras. With Jean and Hill, he won those two Grammys and two MTV music awards on his shelf, and sold more than 7 million albums of The Score alone. “We wanted to be big. We thought we were going to be big. We just didn’t know if it was going to actually happen,” Pras says. “That rocket took off, it was like … everything happened so fast.” But after The Score turned them into overnight millionaires and global celebrities, the tight-knit magic of their sound couldn’t carry over to real life. The three have cycled through dramas both individual and interconnected ever since, making more headlines with false-start reunions than with new material or tour dates.  

The last successful Fugees tour took them across Europe in 2005. Since then, their sporadic live shows have been disorganized, chaotic, and according to most reviews, sensational. In the fall of 2021, citing the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic, the Fugees abruptly postponed — and later canceled — their highly anticipated 25th-anniversary reunion tour days before it was scheduled to begin. It was rumored that Pras’ legal troubles were the real cause — but he tells me that while his legal distractions were a factor, the cancellation was due to a variety of complications. Last July, when Hill made a surprise cameo during Jean’s set at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, Pras was nowhere to be seen. 

“It got a bit complicated. That’s life. But I think now we cordial,” Pras says. “’Clef and I speak, here and there. He texts me, he calls me. Lauryn and I, we cool. You know, it’s all right. But obviously, dealing with what I’m dealing with, I’ve just been kind of, like, focusing on that, you know what I mean?”

It’s common to think of Pras as the Fugees’ third man. On both albums, where Hill’s voice bounces from the hard patois of the Jersey streets to airy vibratos that ring with the power of grief and love, and Jean leaps across eras and octaves of the popular American songbook, Pras is the steady baritone, a sturdy foundation for the elaborate sound structures floating above him. Though he’s three years younger than Jean, Pras’ effect was that of the group’s straight man, the chaperone to two wild geniuses doing their thing. 

His solo career couldn’t match Hill’s or Jean’s, so it’s easy to forget that in 1998 — when Pras released Ghetto Supastar, his first solo album — the Grammy-nominated title track featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mya blasted out of car stereos from Liverpool to Stockholm, and was one of Billboard’s top hip-hop songs of the year. 

Following the dictates of rap stardom, Pras was never timid about showcasing the perks. Three tracks on Ghetto Supastar are just a series of answering machine messages (remember 1998?) left by his friends: Naomi Campbell (“I want to thank you for coming to my party for Nelson Mandela”), Sean Puffy Combs (“When you get in, give me a call. 917-929-Daddy! Call me!”), Carly Simon (“I just learned to play the kalimba, and I was wondering if you need a kalimba player”), and Donald Trump (“I have no doubt that you’re going to be a big success”).  

In 2006, a decade after The Score catapulted him from the basement of Jean’s mother-in-law’s house in Newark to homes in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, Pras the rapper metamorphosed into Pras the documentary filmmaker. He started by turning his lens on homelessness and casting himself in the leading role. With a film crew following at all hours, he went undercover for nine days and nine nights, sleeping in a tent on L.A.’s Skid Row. 

When filming wrapped, he needed a serious break. “I was like, ‘I just can’t be in L.A.,’” he says. “I decided I’m just going to spend time in New York City, in my Park Avenue apartment, OK?” He got a call from a professional nightlife promoter with a favor to ask: Could Pras come out that night to PM, a Meatpacking District club, to entertain a new “whale” in town, using the industry lingo for a high-net-worth individual who can swim into an American city and stir up a sandstorm of loose cash. The promoter’s whale that night was a pudgy 24-year-old Malaysian in glasses who didn’t know any celebrities, but was eager to pay to hang out with one.

“I don’t usually go to clubs and do that kind of shit. I go to events, but I don’t just randomly go to a club,” Pras says. “So you can imagine someone like me going to a club, how boring it is after 20 minutes, right?” 

The scene Pras walked into didn’t raise his view of New York club life. Sloshed Wall Street bros celebrated their latest deal, and the club MC led the crowd in pop-hit singalongs. “Annoying as fuck,” Pras recalls. Suddenly, one of the bankers was on the mic and announced, “We’re the richest people in this club!” And thus, drinks for everyone. This was when bottle service was the new thing, a table might come with a $3,000 minimum, and a single bottle of champagne cost thousands. The party erupted, and the whale at Pras’ table shifted in his seat. “Something about that didn’t sit right with Jho Low,” Pras recalls. The young Malaysian wanted the mic and handed the MC $20,000 in cash. Low took the stage, and he took over the night. 

Jho Low. SCMP/Newscom

“There’s rumors that someone is running around here talking about how they’re the richest people in this club. So I’ll tell you what, I want to buy everyone in this club a bottle,” Pras remembers Low declaring. The bankers saw his raise and added another round of bottles, inciting Low to hand over another $20,000 for the mic. 

“I’m not into this back-and-forth nonsense, so this is going to be my last thing on this,” Pras recalls Low announcing. “I want to buy every single water bottle in the club, every juice bottle, anything that’s a bottle with a liquid in it, I want to buy it.” Finally, he demanded that someone head to a nightclub across the street and buy a bottle for everyone partying in that club as well. In 20 minutes, he’d spent what Pras estimated to be about a million dollars, maybe a million-five. 

“So,” Pras says, “that was my introduction to Jho Low.” 

LOW DIDN’T FORGET about Pras, and he went through that same promoter to lure him into his orbit. “Jho Low wants you to come down to Malaysia to perform,” Pras remembers the promoter telling him. This was the early phase of Low’s extravagance, but he had already identified a crew of musicians, models, and actors who had no problem taking his money to show up and smile. “I never went,” Pras says. “I wasn’t interested.” In all their years of friendship, Pras says, he never took money from Low to perform.   

What Pras was interested in at that time was a young politician named Barack Obama, who he was convinced was going to be the next president. They had met once before, when Obama was an Illinois state senator, and Pras had an early sense of the man’s potential: “He was amazing before people knew he was amazing.” Pras tells me about a rally in downtown L.A. in 2007, when Obama invited him to come to Beverly Hills for a fundraiser hosted by the DreamWorks team of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. 

“I said, ‘Oh, I’ll donate to the cause. How much is it, like 500, a thousand dollars?’” Obama told him it was $40,000 per person. “Oh, shit. I’ll catch you at the next one, yo!” Pras says the candidate told him not to worry about the money. “Just come with me. I got you,” Pras remembers Obama telling him. He mingled that night with a manicured crowd of A-listers who raised $1.3 million for the future president at the event. Pras was enthralled. 

“He’s a constitutional lawyer. At that time, who the fuck knew what that meant? Constitutional lawyer. Not a criminal lawyer, not an entertainment lawyer, not a real estate lawyer — a constitutional lawyer. It sounded sexy as fuck. So I’m a surrogate, now I’m everything Obama.” 

The admiration was evidently mutual. During the 2008 election, when the campaigns released lists of their candidate’s favorite songs, Obama’s top pick was “Ready or Not,” from The Score. (McCain’s, for reasons I will ponder for some time, was “Dancing Queen,” by ABBA.)  

Pras shared his convictions with anyone who would listen, including the promoter, who, Pras says, told his client in Malaysia. Skeptical, Low contacted Pras directly. “I would give my reasons. I would go through my whole spiel,” Pras recalls. “Cut to, Obama won, and the next time I heard from Jho Low was in 2012.”

BY THE TIME PRAS saw him again, Low had greased his own tracks to the top of the world. To do so, the Wharton grad had identified a few key opportunities. First, some critical weaknesses in the international banking system; second, the Malaysian and Gulf state officials he could pacify with huge bribes; and third, the Goldman bankers who would look the other way (or even help!) as long as they got theirs. In his first big move, in September 2009, Low steered the 1MDB board into a $1 billion investment in a Saudi-based drilling company. After some fancy paperwork and light cajoling of compliance-conscious bankers, he transferred $700 million of that into a Swiss bank account, explaining it as a vague loan repayment that would be held by an independent company based in the Seychelles. The scheme was confusing by design, the Seychelles company belonged to him alone, and he had pulled off one of the largest embezzled-cash deposits of all time, according to reporting by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright in their book, Billion Dollar Whale

And with that, dropping a million dollars at a tacky nightclub didn’t seem so outrageous. As chronicled in the book, Low turned grandiose social stunts into the backdrop of his real-life fantasy. From New York to Vegas to Hollywood, he made sure bottles of champagne flowed for friends like DiCaprio, Usher, and Jamie Foxx. Low used ostentation for a purpose, and within a few short years, he’d surrounded himself with the hard goods and the real people who lent the entire enterprise a gloss of legitimacy. As his profligacy and parties flashed bigger and brighter, his guests saw in Low no mere party-boy poseur, but a man of apparently limitless means, whatever their origin, whose interests could even enhance their own ambitions. 

For instance, in 2010, Low funded Red Granite Pictures, a Hollywood upstart run by two of his closest chums, who opened their first office in the same Sunset Strip building as DiCaprio’s production company. Once he had successfully courted DiCaprio, Low fronted $100 million for The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s three-hour ode to white-collar crime. To Pras, a wealthy-but-not-that-wealthy rapper with his own set of business ambitions, here was evidence that Low was a friend worth keeping. “A lot of people gravitated towards him,” Pras says. “Because this guy’s flashing money, he’s living his best life, right?” Indeed he was. 

In the summer of 2012, as Scorsese started filming, and after Low acquired a $100 million stake in Sony Music Publishing, he reconnected with Pras to discuss his next venture. To keep the 1MDB gambit going, Low needed pull with the U.S. government, and he set out to pave a similar path into Washington as he had in Hollywood. It’s the record of those schemes that shapes the Justice Department’s indictments against Pras. 

When they first met, Low seemed happy just to have a famous rapper by his side. Six years later, each man had emerged from a chrysalis of self-actualization. Pras was now an issues-driven documentary filmmaker, aspiring private-equity investor, and Obama surrogate. Low was a serious player in Hollywood. Now, each had something the other needed. 

That June, Pras says, he had been invited by Frank White Jr., then the vice chairman of the president’s reelection campaign and one of Obama’s top fundraisers, to an intimate event in Miami, where for $40,000, donors could sit and kibitz with the president. When Low learned about the event, he sprang into action and made plans to join Pras in Miami. After Low wired him about $1 million, according to the indictment, Pras invited his contacts and covered their donations. Just about every facet of this plan — a foreign national sending political contributions to the United States, distributing that money among friends to donate under their own names (“straw donors” in campaign-finance jargon), and later misleading the campaign about the source of the money — was illegal. 

According to the Justice Department, Low sent more than $21 million of his embezzled funds to accounts held by Pras and his financial adviser prior to the election. Of that, Pras donated about $1.1 million, in his own name, to an Obama PAC. By Election Day, the government charges, Pras had distributed another $865,000 of Low’s cash to about 20 straw donors. 

These events can be interpreted in a couple of ways. To the Justice Department, Pras and Low “conspired to circumvent federal law against foreign influence” so they “could buy access to” Obama. Another interpretation, according to the defense, is that the two men, both unfamiliar with the arcane rules governing the Federal Election Commission (FEC), were using each other to achieve their own goals. Low had learned in Malaysia and the Mideast that most politicians had a price, and he seemed to think Obama — or maybe those close to him — did as well. Pras just wanted Obama to win and to climb the fundraising ladder. “Pras did not intentionally violate FEC law,” a source close to the case tells me. Pras is a doer, this source says, and when he was asked to go find $40,000 from 20 people, he found a way to do it.

On the eve of Obama’s reelection in 2012, Low still hadn’t met the president, but he was circling closer. In his budding relationship with White, he now had a man of rare clout within the White House. A regular at state dinners, White was literally in the first family; White’s sister is married to Michelle Obama’s cousin.

IN 2012, AS ASSERTED in multiple defense motions, White guided Low through the White House past Secret Service checkpoints. There, thanks to White, Low had his picture taken with the President and the First Lady. According to the motions, White “facilitated a $20 million payment” for this prized photograph. (Low and White didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story. The FBI and the DOJ declined to comment.) According to Pras, Low pestered him for a copy of the photo for weeks and later told him that he would have paid $100 million for it.

That year, with his prestige growing in America’s financial, entertainment, and political power centers, there was almost nothing Low couldn’t do. Days before the 2012 election, he threw himself an epic 31st-birthday party in Las Vegas, an event that even for Low, even for Vegas, was over the top. There were performances by Kanye West, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Pharrell Williams, and the South Korean pop star Psy, who Low flew in for the party.

Pras was now a regular in Low’s world. There were connections to be made and, he had to admit, fun to be had. It should be noted that while his tastes might be conservative by rap-star standards and his SoHo apartment austere, Pras is no ascetic when it comes to the finer things. After The Score, he picked up a powder-blue Ferrari Maranello. When he’s in L.A., he drives a Lamborghini Urus. He’s also got a bit of a Swiss-watch problem. One of his first was a $150,000 platinum-plated Audemars Piguet, but now he’s more of a Patek Phillipe man. 

About a week after Low’s Vegas birthday blowout, a more intimate crew convened in lower Manhattan for DiCaprio’s 38th birthday. “Everybody’s there, DeNiro, Beyoncé and Jay-Z … and Jho Low’s feeling good, everything is great, boom, boom, boom,” Pras recalls. “So Jho Low looked at me like, ‘We need to do something for New Year’s.’ So I said, ‘Yo, you know what’d be great? If we could do New Year’s twice.’” They talked over logistics, whether it was even possible. “Let me figure it out,” Low told Pras. New York and Los Angeles wouldn’t work, they realized. “So we went to Australia,” says Pras. 

Pras and about 50 guests, including DiCaprio, Foxx, Jonah Hill, plus assorted friends and families, flew to Sydney on a 500-passenger commercial airliner retrofitted with a lounge and nightclub. They landed in Sydney and headed to a casino, where Pras remembers Low losing $13 million playing baccarat. Guests could choose from two private parties that night, one at a city zoo, the other on a yacht in Sydney Harbour. When the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2013, they popped the corks of Low’s fine champagne and promptly boarded buses back to a private airstrip, re-planed, and headed home into the past.  

“Look,” Pras says, “when we exited Australia, the stamp was 2013. When I came back into the States, the stamp was 2012.”

LOW NAMED HIS $250 million superyacht Equanimity. At 300 feet, it had a helicopter pad, ample room for 26 guests, and a crew of about 30. In Buddhist teachings, equanimity is a core virtue, one of the four brahmaviharas, or “boundless states” characteristic of the enlightened. Equanimity connotes a state of deep mental and emotional balance, especially under duress. In the summer of 2016, the U.S. government delivered some duress.

Low had had a good run. But in Washington that election year, the Obama administration had a parting message for him. On July 20, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the seizure of about $1 billion in 1MDB-financed assets: real estate from Los Angeles to London, Low’s private jet, a Van Gogh and a Monet, Low’s share in Sony Music, the proceeds from The Wolf of Wall Street, and so on. (DiCaprio ultimately surrendered to the government a $3.2 million Picasso, a $9 million Basquiat, and a long-missing Oscar that Marlon Brando won in 1955 for his performance in On the Waterfront, all gifts from Low before his public downfall.)

It was a major blow, but far from fatal. Low didn’t get this far from a lack of persistence, and so, with 1MDB more than $13 billion in debt, he pivoted to Beijing. In Xi’s government, Low saw potential for massive state-backed investments to shore up his floundering fund, according to Billion Dollar Whale, and in Low, the Chinese government saw a malleable emissary of a weak state who had tried and failed to build an alliance with Washington. The Justice Department may have put an end to Low’s American soiree, but he still had millions stashed in banks around the world, apartments in Hong Kong and Bangkok, and Equanimity, which sailed him beyond their reach as he waited for his next opportunity. He wouldn’t have to wait long.

American politics, the world was reminded on Nov. 8, 2016, is a fickle thing. One day, you are dealing with an organized, stable, and largely predictable government that (mostly) adheres to the same sets of policies and norms it has for decades. The next day, you get Donald Trump. But where America’s Western allies saw instability, Low saw an opening. In early 2017, he apparently reached out to his politically juiced friend, Pras, and explained the fix he was in. He needed someone close to Trump, someone who could rein in the Justice Department. Pras, in turn, called an old contact who he thought might have a few ideas. 

This brings us to the bizarre series of events at the center of the government’s indictment filed against Pras and Low in June 2021, and its sweeping investigation into the other involved parties. The allegations can be distilled as follows: Low and Pras organized a ragtag group of private American citizens who, for many millions of 1MDB dollars, agreed to lobby the Trump administration on Low’s behalf, and then veered into lobbying on China’s behalf. For his role in the conspiracy, Pras has been charged with the 11 aforementioned criminal offenses, including campaign-finance fraud, witness tampering, violating FARA, and acting as an agent of a foreign government. 

The government’s case continues: To help Low with his legal problems, Pras contacted Nicki Lum Davis, an old friend, television producer, and dedicated Republican donor. Davis, in turn, reached out to Elliott Broidy, vice chair of the Trump Victory Committee and, despite his conviction on corruption charges in 2009, the deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee. In 2017, the group drew up a contract to “secure Broidy’s services” to lobby the DOJ on Low’s behalf: $8 million upfront as Broidy’s retainer, $75 million if the “matter” was resolved within six months, $50 million if it took a full year. George Higginbotham, who was at that point working at the Justice Department, allegedly set up two shell companies to receive Low’s payments — $25 million upfront, $300 million when the job was done — that would later be distributed among the ad hoc crew. 

With the agreements in place and Broidy as the heavy, the trio set out for Bangkok, where Low booked them rooms at the Shangri-La Hotel. Before departing, Davis emailed Broidy: “Since u [sic] land earlier, [Pras] and I will see you at arrivals.… Thanks and bon voyage — here’s the start of an exciting and prosperous adventure!” At the Shangri-La, Broidy assured Low that he would lean on the Trump administration to bring an end to the investigations and asset seizures. He then asked Low whether his fees for the work might also be seized by the Justice Department. Not to worry, Low said: He had “friends” who would get them paid.

Low dangled money in front of every Trump-connected American he could find in 2017. For help with his civil forfeitures, he hired former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Trump’s personal lawyer Mark Kasowitz. He told his friends that he retained former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with $10 million (a claim Giuliani denied). Christie was one of a handful of attorneys who ultimately split $15 million in 1MDB funds set aside by the Justice Department to cover Low’s legal fees. According to Tim Leissner, the Goldman banker who pleaded guilty to facilitating 1MDB, Low also met with Jared Kushner in Beijing that spring to discuss the terms of a settlement once the U.S. dropped its investigations. (A source close to Kushner told Bloomberg the meeting never took place.) 

Still following? Good, because this is where the government’s straightforward story about a crooked young Malaysian billionaire trying to influence Washington turns into a complex story about the Chinese government using said billionaire and his American friends to influence the Trump administration on matters of importance in Beijing. 

According to the indictment, about two weeks after the Bangkok trip, Broidy, Pras, and Davis flew to Hong Kong to meet Low again. Upon arrival, they were taken to Shenzhen, China, where they found Low accompanied by a Chinese government official, who other reporting has verified as Vice Minister of Public Security Sun Lijun. Lijun asked Broidy if he could persuade the White House to extradite the wealthy billionaire fugitive Guo Wengui, who had been publicly deriding and aggravating Beijing for years. That spring, Interpol issued a “red notice” for Guo’s arrest on bribery charges, but the U.S. government hadn’t touched him. Indeed, Guo was living well on the run. He bought an $82 million New York City apartment and joined Mar-a-Lago. In Shenzhen, the indictment states, Lijun told the three Americans that he would soon be traveling to Washington to discuss his Guo problem with senior Trump officials. Broidy assured him that he would arrange the meetings at the White House. Weeks later, and in the most improbable fashion, Pras learned that Broidy never followed through. (Broidy, Davis, Christie, Giuliani, and Wynn didn’t respond to requests for comment.)  

Billionaire Guo Wengui, at his New York City apartment on November 28, 2017. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

IT WAS SPRING in New York City, and Pras was walking laps around the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street. He didn’t know why he was doing this, and as he rounded the block onto Madison Avenue, then turned onto 58th Street, and then back to Park and back to Madison again, it occurred to Pras that whoever left the card at the front desk instructing him to walk this route before reentering the hotel might now be preparing to kill him. The entire experience — the anonymous messages, the circumambulations, the presumed surveillance — felt deeply menacing. 

After the second lap, Pras picked up another card from the front desk, this one sending him to a room on an upper floor, where he waited for half an hour, anxiety rising, until two Chinese men in suits came to the door. They took Pras’ phone and led him to the penthouse, where they showed him to a table. Then Sun Lijun arrived with a young interpreter. Lijun pulled a cigarette out of a pack of Newports. Pras, who hates cigarettes, stood up from the table, triggering a brief commotion. “I’m allergic to cigarette smoke,” he told the interpreter. Lijun was not pleased. “He gave me this look,” Pras tells me, “like, ‘This bitch-ass motherfucker.’” 

Lijun stamped out his Newport and began shouting and ranting in Mandarin. The translator stiffened up. “Well, what the minister is trying to say is …” Pras cut him off and told him to give it to him straight. “You’re not going to offend me. I’m not a politician. I’m not wearing a suit. I really don’t give a fuck. Just tell me why I’m here.” 

Lijun was furious; he’d been refused the meeting with the Trump administration that Broidy had promised him. The last-minute cancellation was just the latest display of American disrespect. Settling down, Lijun explained his purpose in New York that day: China wanted the U.S. government to turn over Guo Wengui, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted Lijun to send back three detained Americans, including a young pregnant American citizen. Lijun took out his phone, Pras says, and showed him an email from Sessions calling on Lijun to release her immediately. 

“Now I don’t know much, but I know enough to know that this is some big shit,” Pras recalls thinking at the time. He sat down and looked at the vice minister. “I’m looking at him, like, ‘Damn, this shit heavy.’” Lijun returned his solemn gaze. “If you were me,” Lijun asked, “what would you do?”

Pras took a breath. “It’s a little bit above my pay grade,” he said, “but if you want my personal opinion, send them back home.” Lijun asked him to explain. “Look, man, this woman is pregnant. From a humanistic perspective, wouldn’t it make more sense to send her back in good faith so she can be with her family when she goes into labor?” Pras said. “That’s just my opinion.” 

Lijun took out his phone and made a call. “When do you want her back?” he asked Pras. “I don’t know, tomorrow?” Pras replied. 

Lijun finished his call. The pregnant woman would be back in America within a few days, he said. Pras was stunned. “I’m just curious,” he said, “who were you on the phone with that allowed you to send this woman back?” 

“Xi,” said Lijun. 

“The president?” Pras asked. 

“Yes,” Lijun said, “I only answer to him.” 

Later that spring, Pras was eating lunch by himself at a chic seafood restaurant near his apartment in SoHo when two clean-cut white guys walked up to his table and announced themselves: FBI. “Do you mind if we sit down?” 

The special agents assured Pras he wasn’t in trouble; they just wanted to know whether he had met any Chinese officials at the Four Seasons lately. They took out a sheet of headshots and asked him to identify the man he saw there. Pras pointed at Lijun. They asked him what they talked about, and Pras explained the emails from Sessions about the detained pregnant woman. 

“That was you?” the surprised agents asked Pras. He didn’t understand the question any better than the FBI understood the situation. “She just showed up in New York,” Pras says they explained, “and no one knew how she got here.” 

THESE BIZARRE SCENES from Pras’ life are the crux of this complicated case. 

For the government, Pras’ willingness to converse with Lijun about these topics (as first reported by Bloomberg Businessweek) is proof of the conspiracy that could put him behind bars for decades. These conversations, says the Justice Department, show that Pras was not only violating FARA, but knowingly acting as an agent of Chinese influence. For Pras, and for the average person just trying to make sense of this meandering epic, which has taken us from the grandiosity of Low’s crimes to the esoterics of campaign-finance law and the current realities of geopolitics, there is a basic question that the government’s case fails to address. But first, a brief discussion about the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

FARA violations are unusual in the federal criminal code in that they require an act of omission (neglecting to register as a foreign agent) rather than the typical commission of a crime (e.g., running a red light, embezzling $4.5 billion from a sovereign wealth fund, etc.). FARA was enacted in 1938 amid the fear of Nazi propagandists turning Americans into fascists, a threat that, after World War II, seemed quite remote. Between 1966 and 2015, there were just seven criminal charges and three guilty verdicts for FARA violations. The 2016 election — with its unprecedented flood of foreign meddling via social media and the equally aberrant activities of Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, two top Trump advisers who pleaded guilty of FARA-related charges (Flynn tried to rescind his plea, and they were both and later pardoned) — put the law back in style at the Justice Department. Whatever your feelings about Manafort’s and Flynn’s patriotism or lack thereof, the problem remains that FARA is a vague law open to significant prosecutorial discretion.

More problematic still, the others involved in this clumsy conspiracy to get the Trump administration to negotiate with Lijun for Guo’s return were potentially delinquent on the law, the defense argues. (It’s worth pointing out that Lijun was, in 2022, sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for, among other things, accepting bribes.) And then there’s Steve Wynn, who while serving as the RNC finance chair and awaiting licensing for two casino projects in Macau (a special administrative region of China), called and visited the White House many times in the spring and summer of 2017, on Broidy’s advice, to lobby Trump about extraditing Guo. On one call, according to Wynn’s own testimony, Wynn was patched through to Air Force One, where he reached White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who curtly advised him to give it up. “It will look like you’re representing [the Chinese],” Kelly told him. 

Declining the plea offer has left Pras as the improbable face of this case. Everyone else has faced no charges (White), pleaded guilty for lesser sentences (Higginbotham, Davis), was pardoned (Broidy), or was granted immunity (Wynn, according to a Justice Department deposition). In court filings, the defense has called this “selective prosecution” (an argument that the judge in the upcoming trial did not find sufficiently persuasive to dismiss the case). In a typical conspiracy case, prosecutors work their way up the chain of power and influence by pressuring members of the group to turn on those above them. But in this case, the group’s leader is a Malaysian citizen and international fugitive. Jho Low isn’t coming back. Pras, on the other hand, is a soft target who faces dire consequences due to his decision to exercise his right to a fair trial.

All of which brings us back to the basic question: Over the decade covered by the government’s investigation, what drove Pras? Was he acting as a knowing criminal who intentionally broke campaign-finance laws, intentionally didn’t register for FARA, and voluntarily acted as a Chinese agent? Was he an artist lured by Low’s money into situations that he did not fully understand? When the stakes were highest, for what and for whom did he advocate?

Pras in his SOHO loft. Griffin Lotz

WE’RE BACK IN PRAS’ SoHo loft now. As the sun dips below the rooflines and the Hudson River, he doesn’t turn on the lights. In the darkening winter gloom, he tells me how he got here and where he still wants to go. 

“I was one of those people who was just dabbling. I never thought I would be full time into politics,” he says. “I realized politics is not for me. The problem with politics is this: It’s that the people within politics, they’re dirtier than the people who are not in politics.”  

When I ask Pras to reflect on all of this — the indictments, the high-profile trial ahead of him — he won’t say much about his motives or the specific charges that we’ll hear play out over the coming weeks, on the advice of his attorneys. He will say, however, that he was, at each turn, following the guidance of the lawyers and financial advisers that he, as an artist, depends on to keep him safe. “What benefit would I get trying to break laws? It’s not worth it to me,” he says. “I’m like a pariah now. I’ve got friends who won’t talk to me because they think there’s a satellite in orbit listening to them.”

With things so uncertain, he’s still making plans for his future. He’s involved with a company called Space Monkey that aims to be a clearinghouse for space-related investments that he believes in, such as providing satellite internet to poor farmers in Africa and rural America. His legal problems have matured him, he says. “Things that I thought were important are no longer important to me. I have a real sense of purpose in life now.… No one’s going to have a perfect life.” 

Pras may be in trouble. But when he looks back, he feels, overall, fortunate.

“I’ve been all around the world. I love Europe, the history, the architecture. I love South America. The Caribbean, that’s where my family’s from. There is no place on Earth like America. I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks or believes. Listen, there’s no place like this place.”