Lawyer for Fugees rapper Pras Michél pleads guilty to leaking evidence

Lawyer for Fugees rapper Pras Michél pleads guilty to leaking evidence

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A lawyer who unsuccessfully defended Grammy Award-winning Fugees rap artist Prakazrel “Pras” Michél pleaded guilty Friday to criminal contempt of court for leaking confidential evidence, including grand jury materials to Bloomberg News, before Michél’s conviction last year in the largest foreign embezzlement scheme ever charged by the United States.

David Kenner faced up to six months behind bars on the misdemeanor count, but U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta gave the Los Angeles entertainment lawyer one year of unsupervised probation and a $5,000 fine after he accepted responsibility in a plea and sentence entered under a deal with prosecutors.

Kenner represented Michél last year as he went to trial on charges connected to a sprawling foreign influence scheme tied to the looting of $4.5 billion from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund.

“I am deeply sorry to be standing in front of you, and I fully accept responsibility,” Kenner, 82, told the judge in Washington in a video teleconference hearing. “I had a wonderful 56-year career, and while I tried to be a zealous advocate in my cases, including for Mr. Michél, this is a low point.”

In court, Kenner admitted responsibility for what the government alleged was the publication of a photo of Michél at a 2012 fundraising dinner with President Barack Obama bearing a grand jury exhibit sticker in one of two Bloomberg News articles that ran on March 3, 2023, previewing his defense at trial later that month. The attorney also acknowledged disclosing to two reporters evidence the prosecutors turned over to Michél’s attorneys — such as grand jury witness testimony, investigative reports and communications — that were subject to a court protective order that they use them only in court.

“It was my responsibility to ensure that only individuals” bound by the protective order were given access to the database of evidence, Kenner said. “I was reckless in not taking steps to ensure the reporters’ access to the database was terminated.”

Mehta initially balked at a probationary sentence, saying it “sent the wrong signal” to lawyers who might “affirmatively mislead” a judge, and called it at least “reckless” for Kenner to tell Michél’s trial judge initially that he gave the reporters access as “agents” of the defense as permitted under the court order.

In fact, according to plea papers, Kenner witnessed at least one of the reporters tearing up a signed copy of their protective order in front of him and both of them expressing concerns about having signed it. And Kenner’s authorized representative let the reporters access hundreds of documents via the database dozens of times, as reflected in an invoice he received.

Still, the judge said after imposing the top fine allowed that jail would serve no purpose as Kenner was retiring facing disbarment or other disciplinary consequences from his criminal conviction.

Kenner attorney Barry Boss argued as much, adding that Kenner was under financial constraints because he spent $1.4 million “out of pocket” for Michél’s defense that was unreimbursed. Boss and prosecutor Liz Aloi also said both sides acknowledged some mitigating facts concerning what Kenner knew about what Bloomberg would be reporting.

Michél’s new defense counsel with the ArentFox Schiff law firm has claimed in court filings seeking a new trial that Kenner was paid $750,000. But they accuse Kenner of providing ineffective assistance on several grounds, saying that sum was insufficient and that Kenner otherwise failed to prepare adequately for trial. In court filings, they also alleged that Kenner — whose past clients include Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Death Row Records founder Suge Knight — had a conflict of interest at trial because he faced his own contempt charge. They also alleged he relied on artificial intelligence to help prepare his closing arguments.

In an emailed statement, Michél spokesman Erica Dumas said, “While Mr. Kenner argues that he was merely trying to mount the best possible defense for Pras Michél, his client, Mr. Kenner’s reckless actions crossed critical ethical lines, failed his duties as counsel, and ultimately have cost him dearly. This plea conviction represents a breach of client trust that strikes at the heart of the attorney-client relationship.”

Michél, 51, who found meteoric fame in the 1990s as a member of the hip-hop trio the Fugees, was convicted of 10 federal crimes for his role in a tangle of conspiracies involving money laundering, campaign finance violations, illegal lobbying and witness tampering. He has yet to be sentenced.

Michél was not accused of participating in the gargantuan looting of the Malaysian development fund known as 1MDB but rather of secretly working on behalf of its alleged mastermind, a wild-spending Malaysian financier named Low Taek Jho, and with authorities in China, where the fugitive Low is believed to have taken refuge.

Michél netted more than $100 million through his dealings with Low, who lived an outlandishly extravagant, globe-trotting lifestyle that brought him into the company of U.S. presidents as well as Hollywood A-listers including filmmaker Martin Scorsese, reality TV star Kim Kardashian and actor Leonardo DiCaprio (who testified at trial).

With those contacts, according to trial testimony, Michél helped Low funnel illicit campaign cash to Obama and to illegally lobby Donald Trump’s administration to shut down the Justice Department’s civil and criminal investigations into Low and to secure the extradition of Guo Wengui — a wealthy Chinese national and prominent critic of China’s government then living in New York — at the direction of authorities in Beijing.

Low’s celebrity buddies were not accused of wrongdoing, but DiCaprio testified that he used part of his embezzled fortune to fund the Scorsese-directed and DiCaprio-starring film “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Michél and Low were co-defendants, and Michél was the only one of multiple alleged co-conspirators to take the government to trial as others took guilty pleas.

Of the money paid him, Michél kept about $80 million. Former Donald Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy was paid $9 million, and his associate, business executive Nickie Mali Lum Davis, was paid almost $11 million. Broidy and Davis separately pleaded guilty in 2020 to conspiring to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. Broidy was pardoned by Trump on his last day in office. Davis was sentenced in January to two years in prison.

George Higginbotham, a former Justice Department employee, received $170,000, some of which was unrelated to the scheme, and was sentenced to three months probation in November and forced to forfeit $70,000 after cooperating with the government and helping U.S. public integrity section prosecutors bring down the curtain on the scheme.

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