Leonardo DiCaprio testifies in corruption trial against Fugees member

05 Apr 2023 11:02am
US actor Leonardo DiCaprio testified in a federal court in Washington in an international money laundering and bribery trial of 90s hip-hop star Pras Michel. -(Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)
US actor Leonardo DiCaprio testified in a federal court in Washington in an international money laundering and bribery trial of 90s hip-hop star Pras Michel. -(Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)

WASHINGTON - Leonardo DiCaprio was in Washington Monday -- not to press lawmakers on his environmental causes or to film another blockbuster hit, but rather to testify in a political corruption trial featuring a 90s hip-hop star and a disgraced Malaysian financier.

Pras Michel, a member of the US musical trio The Fugees, is facing charges for allegations of helping to secretly funnel money from Low Taek Jho -- the Malaysian businessman at the heart of the scandal -- to influence US politics.

DiCaprio captivated the courtroom Monday, telling the jury about parties thrown by Low -- extravagant affairs allegedly funded with money looted from Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund, known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

The "Titanic" star, called to testify by the prosecution, is not accused of wrongdoing in what has become one of the biggest embezzlement cases in the world.

The 48-year-old actor testified that Low threw a "multitude of lavish parties with many different people from all over the world" on boats and at nightclubs, often with celebrities in attendance -- sometimes including Michel.

DiCaprio said he and Low first met around 2010 at a party in Las Vegas, though the actor, smiling, said he didn't quite remember everything from the evening.

He was then regularly invited to parties by Low, including a New Year's Eve celebration in which revelers flew from Australia to the United States on a private plane -- in order to see the clocks strike midnight twice.

"I understood him to be a huge businessman with many different connections in Abu Dhabi, Malaysia... a sort of prodigy in the business world, incredibly successful," said DiCaprio.

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- 'That's a lot of money' -

When Low eventually expressed interest in financing DiCaprio's 2013 film "The Wolf of Wall Street," the actor's lawyers and a private detective looked into the Malaysian financier, who is also known as Jho Low. They ultimately gave a thumbs-up on the deal.

"I was given a green light by my team as well as the studios to accept Mr. Low's funding," DiCaprio said. "That means that the background check was fine and that he was seen as a legitimate businessperson."

DiCaprio also accepted gifts from Low for his environmental foundation.

But in 2015, the actor said, he cut ties with Low after suspicions surfaced around his connection to the disappearance of billions of dollars from 1MDB's accounts.

Low, who is said to have fled to China and remains at large, allegedly used the 1MDB funds to subsidize his luxurious lifestyle, invest in DiCaprio's film, rub shoulders with the rich and famous and influence politics.

Low "mentioned in passing that he... was going to give a significant contribution to the Democratic Party," DiCaprio testified. "A significant sum, around 20 to 30 million dollars."

"I said, 'Wow, that's a lot of money.'"

The Fugees' Michel, prosecutors allege, secretly funneled that money from Low to then-president Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign via shell companies, hiding the donations' origins.

It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate to US political campaigns.

The US government also alleges Michel agreed to participate in a clandestine lobbying effort in 2017 to help the Chinese government "secure the return" of dissident billionaire Guo Wengui, based in the United States. Guo has since been arrested himself, on allegations he defrauded investors.

In addition, the government says that Michel pledged to lean on the administration of former president Donald Trump to halt a probe into Low's role in the 1MDB scandal.

Michel, 50, has pleaded not guilty. - Charlotte Plantive / AFP

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