Fugees are getting ready to kick-off an international celebration of the beloved hip-hop trio’s landmark 1996 album, The Score. The reunion of Ms. Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel “Pras” Michel for the 25th anniversary of the collection that gave us “Killing Me Softly,” “Fu-Gee-La” and “Ready or Not” is slated to hit Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Newark and Washington, D.C. in November before moving on to planned overseas dates in December in Paris, London and as-yet-unannounced gigs in Nigeria and Ghana.
The only potential wrinkle in the highly anticipated get-back from the group — who split at their commercial and creative peak in 1998 after just two studio albums — is that Pras is currently under criminal indictment from the U.S. Justice Department as part of a long-running probe into an alleged political influence campaign involving a Chinese investment company.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed to Billboard that Michel was forced to surrender his passport as a result of the charges and ordered not to apply for or possess a passport or any other travel documents as the case continues to slowly wind its way through the legal system; Michel’s attorney, David Kenner, also confirmed that his client’s passport has been confiscated, but tells Billboard that he is working on getting it returned.
Kenner says he brought up the topic of the passport with the government this week, has advised the judge in the case about the tour, and plans to file a motion soon seeking to modify the conditions of the rapper’s release to allow him to get his travel documents back for the planned non-U.S. dates. “It’s certainly something they were aware of and I don’t think they ever seriously thought that it would be an impediment,” he tells Billboard when asked if the passport issue was discussed during talks for the tour.
Kenner says that at present there are no restrictions on Michel’s domestic travel and that he has been meeting with government prosecutors in an attempt to present a joint solution for the passport issue to the judge in the case.
Among the other conditions of release ordered by the U.S. District Court in the original May 2019 charging document were that Michel: not violate any federal, state or local laws while on release, cooperate in the collection of DNA samples if requested and advise the court in writing before changing his address or phone number; the order noted that Michel has homes in Florida and California.
Attorney Michael Leonard tells Billboard that, in general “the prosecution will virtually always oppose international travel, except in cases where there is absolutely no risk of flight and no potential to the danger to the communication in the country to which the defendant is traveling.” Leonard — one of the attorneys representing disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly in his upcoming Illinois and Minnesota trials on child pornography and obstruction and child prostitution, respectively — does not have first-hand knowledge of Pras’ case, but was speaking to Billboard in general terms about how federal prosecutors assess flight risk. In Kelly’s case, the singer was found guilty of nine charges of racketeering and sex trafficking in New York last week; he was forced by the judge in his case to surrender his passport, because he was considered a flight risk.
Back in May 2019, Michel and Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho (aka “Jho Low”) were charged in a four-count indictment in the District of Columbia, in which the pair were accused of conspiring to “make and conceal foreign” campaign contributions to a U.S. presidential candidate identified in the indictment as “Candidate A” during the 2012 presidential election.
The May 2019 charging document in the felony case against Michel lists a number of alleged crimes, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, concealment of material facts, making false entry in a record, witness tampering, conspiracy to serve as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal and a foreign government and to commit money laundering, unregistered agent of a foreign principal and aiding and abetting and impersonating agents of foreign governments; Michel entered a not guilty plea to all the counts, which also include allegations that he and Low “funneled approximately $865,000 to Political Committee A through approximately 20 straw donors.”
At press time a spokesperson for Fugees declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the case; tour promoter Live Nation had not returned Billboard‘s requests for comment.
Low, who remains at large, has been accused by U.S. officials of masterminding a money laundering/bribery scheme that siphoned billions from the Malaysian state investment fund 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad fund); he’s been charged in that alleged fraud scheme by both U.S. and Malaysian officials. In addition to a count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and making and concealing illegal foreign campaign contributions for the pair, Michel was charged in 2019 with one count of a participating in a scheme to “conceal material facts” and two counts of making a false entry in the record tied to the alleged conspiracy.
According to the Associated Press, in the original indictment, prosecutors alleged that from June to November 2012, Low directed more than $21.6 million moved from foreign entities to Michel’s accounts in order to funnel money into the 2012 presidential election. They say Michel then paid about 20 straw donors and conduits so they could make the donations in their names and conceal where the money actually came from, according to the indictment.
A superseding federal indictment unsealed in June of this year — which replaces the original grand jury indictment — revealed that in 2017 Michel allegedly met with FBI agents in an attempt to learn about a missing Chinese dissident being sought by the Chinese regime and to ferret out details about his security arrangements. The indictment also claims both men attempted to influence the Trump administration and Department of Justice to drop their investigation of Low and others connected to the massive fraud scandal tied to 1MDB. A fundraiser for former Pres. Donald Trump, Elliott Broidy, pleaded guilty in 2020 to participating in the same illegal lobbying scheme and was later pardoned by Trump.
The superseding indictment from June noted charges against Michel, including: conspiracy to defraud the United States and to make illegal foreign and conduit contributions, concealment of material facts, two counts of making a false entry in a record, two counts of witness tampering, a count of conspiracy to serve as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal and a foreign government and to commit money laundering, another of unregistered agent of a foreign principal and aiding and abetting, two counts of acting as an agent of a foreign government and one of conspiracy to make false statements to banks.
A July 12, 2021 update from a status hearing noted that Michel — who was ordered not to have any contact with any witnesses in the case — was offered a plea deal in the matter, which he rejected. Michel appeared alongside his bandmates in New York on Sept. 22 to perform a warm-up reunion show at a pop-up teaser gig at Pier 17 and then again three days later at the massive Global Citizen 2021 event.
“I think it’s almost inconceivable that a judge would allow him to travel abroad for a concert,” says Duncan Levin, a former federal and state prosecutor and managing partner of New York-based law firm Tucker Levin. “Typically in federal criminal cases the court restricts the travel of defendants to the district that the court is in. By that measure it’s unusual to even allow the defendant to travel to other districts in the United States, but international travel is virtually unheard of.”
Like Leonard, Levin has no first-hand knowledge of the Michel case, but was speaking from experience with federal cases. If the court were to make an exception for Michel, Levin says, it would likely unleash a flood of questions from other defendants who might have more pressing or legitimate reasons to travel abroad, which in similar cases could include the birth of a child, an out-of-state funeral or to have a pressing medical procedure.
“I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen a court grant a defendant’s application to travel outside of the United States and certainly he’d have a very uphill battle arguing to the court that this is something that would require the court’s approval because of some very pressing reason,” Levin says, adding that it is “routine” to have conditions placed on a defendant by pre-trial services, which often include travel restrictions.
Kenner tells Billboard that so far he’s been handed 2.6 million pages of discovery in the case, and that given that “humongous” amount of material to go through, he’s looking at a potential fall 2022 beginning to the trial.