Ex-Fugees Star Stakes Claim on $37 Million Seized by U.S. Government

Pras Michel -Getty-H 2016
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Pras Michel is challenging the seizure by the U.S. government of $37.5 million in one of his bank accounts. On Monday, the former Fugees rapper submitted a claim to the money in D.C. federal court.

Back in November, federal prosecutors filed a forfeiture complaint as part of its ongoing investigation into the alleged looting of the Malaysian public wealth fund called 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB). According to the complaint, Jho Low sought to funnel tens of millions of dollars into the U.S. in connection with a lobbying campaign. He allegedly used Michel as a conduit for money laundering.

For a few years now, Low has been the center of attention in the 1MDB scandal. 

A flamboyant financier and big spender, Low ingratiated himself into Hollywood circles and made many famous friends. Some of the money went to Hollywood films, including The Wolf of Wall Street.

Two years ago, the U.S. brought its largest ever forfeiture action over $1 billion worth of assets tied to embezzlement and diversion of 1MDB funds. Prosecutors would later charge Low with a conspiracy to launder money. He remains at large.

The November action over the $37.5 million represented the latest in the saga. Prosecutors say that Low attempted to lobby high-level U.S. officials to influence the ongoing investigation into Low and the 1MDB assets. Michel is said to have taken Low's money and at his direction, opened up multiple accounts at financial institutions.

"[T]he true source and purpose of the funds were not disclosed to the banks and were actively concealed from them," stated the complaint. "Michel then disbursed Jho Low's funds to various individuals and entities to facilitate a lobbying campaign to represent the interests of various foreign nationals and entities, including Jho Low, in the United States."

Michel now states that he is the lawful owner of the money.

"The property is not subject to forfeiture," states the claim filed Monday. "The Complaint fails adequately to allege that the property is the proceeds of specified unlawful activity or was used to promote, conduct, or facilitate specified unlawful activity, and, in any event, Mr. Michel is an innocent owner of the property who did not know of the conduct or circumstances giving rise to forfeiture."

The action may be risky for Michel as prosecutors may not be done pursuing more criminal charges. Last week, The Washington Post reported that Leonardo DiCaprio, once friendly with Low and a beneficiary of gifts tied to the 1MDB fund, made a secret appearance before a D.C. grand jury as part of the 1MDB saga.