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Actor Leonardo DiCaprio testifies in Fugees' Pras Michel conspiracy trial

Pras Michel, former member of the Fugees, center, and his lawyer David Kenner arrive to federal court in Washington, DC, US, on Monday, April 3, 2023.
Ting Shen
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Pras Michel, former member of the Fugees, center, and his lawyer David Kenner arrive to federal court in Washington, DC, US, on Monday, April 3, 2023.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio lent the staid federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., a touch of star power Monday when he testified in the trial of Grammy-winning musician Pras Michel.

Michel faces conspiracy, witness tampering and other charges stemming from his relationship to Jho Low, a Malaysian billionaire on the run from justice.

Prosecutors allege Michel illegally helped steer Low's money into then-President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign and then tried to influence the Trump administration to drop a criminal case against Low. In exchange, the Justice Department said, Michel pocketed nearly $100 million.

At points Monday morning, a rotating group of reporters, courthouse clerks and staffers filled every seat in the courtroom, eager to get a brief glimpse of DiCaprio. Security officers ringed the back of the room and the hallway.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly repeatedly asked the actor to "keep your voice up" so the jury and court reporter could hear him. "Talk to the back of the room," the judge said.

Two female jurors in the front row exchanged animated glances when DiCaprio took the witness stand. They and other members of the jury paid close attention to his testimony, which lasted less than 90 minutes.

On the witness stand, DiCaprio testified about his dealings with fugitive billionaire Low, who hosted lavish parties that drew celebrities including Paris Hilton, Alicia Keys and Britney Spears (who once jumped out of a cake to wish Low a happy birthday). That all came before Low drew scrutiny from the Justice Department for allegedly stealing billions of dollars from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. Low also helped finance The Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 film about a voracious fraudster, in which DiCaprio starred.

DiCaprio said he had received multiple gifts from Low including pay for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street, financial donations to his environmentally focused charity, photographs, first edition books and art.

"Did you ever receive anything close to tens of millions of dollars separate and apart from The Wolf of Wall Street?" asked prosecutor Nicole Lockhart.

No, DiCaprio replied.

Under more questioning from prosecutor Lockhart, DiCaprio said he recalled a conversation he had with Low about the 2012 U.S. presidential race. "He mentioned in passing that he or possibly a group of other partners of his were going to give a significant contribution to the Democratic party ... something to the tune of $20 or $30 million, to which I basically said, 'Wow that's a lot of money,' " DiCaprio said.

DiCaprio said he had enlisted representatives and a third-party investigator to perform background checks on Low before entering into the business relationship with him over the film to find out whether "the financing was good or not and safe to accept."

"My understanding, I was given a green light by my team as well as the studio to accept financing from Mr. Low," DiCaprio said. "That means that the background check was fine and he was a legitimate businessperson."

DiCaprio pointed out Michel, the defendant, in the courtroom and said he thought they had first met in the 1990s, when Michel's group, Fugees, reached the height of its fame and influence. Its 1996 album The Score remains one of the top streaming albums of all time.

But by 2012, prosecutors said in their opening statement, Michel was struggling to reinvent himself as a businessman and searching for a big payday.

DiCaprio says he first met Low in Las Vegas

As for Jho Low, the Malaysian now believed to be in China, DiCaprio said they met at an extravagant birthday party in Las Vegas. They met repeatedly for other celebrations. Once, DiCaprio flew to Australia with Low, Michel and a large group of other celebrities to celebrate New Year's Eve — first in Australia, and then in a return to Las Vegas, to try to catch the moment twice as the time zones changed.

"Did you make it in time to celebrate New Year's?" asked defense lawyer David Kenner.

"It depends on how you look at it," DiCaprio replied in a slow and deliberate tone.

On cross examination, Kenner also probed what DiCaprio knew about Low's legal status in the United States, telling the judge that is a "central theme of the prosecution" since foreign donations are barred in political campaigns here.

But prosecutor Lockhart elicited that foreign funds are not illegal to finance movie productions in the U.S., getting DiCaprio to say that is "somewhat" common.

As DiCaprio began to leave the witness stand, dozens of spectators filed out of the courtroom. The government's next witness proceeded to a more than half empty house.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.