Leonardo DiCaprio Testifies at Foreign Lobbying Trial of Former Fugee Pras Michel

“I basically said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money.'”

Leonardo DiCaprio at the London premiere of "The Wolf Of Wall Street" on Jan. 9, 2014.Joel Ryan/AP

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Jurors in federal court won’t get to hear if Leonardo DiCaprio remembers Britany Spears jumping out of a cake at a birthday party for a mysterious Malaysian Hollywood financier who has since been accused of playing a leading role in a massive corruption and money laundering scheme.

DiCaprio testified Monday in the trial of former Fugees member Pras Michel, who is charged with campaign finance violations and illegal foreign lobbying. The allegations against Michel are all tied to Jho Low, the Malaysian businessman who financed DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning film The Wolf of Wall Street. Low threw what the actor, who would know, said were notably lavish, celebrity-studded parties, often on boats or at nightclubs. Low met celebrities including DiCaprio, Michel, Paris Hilton, and model Miranda Kerr, who he reportedly dated, at such events. Low, now a fugitive believed to be hiding in China, is also charged in the Michel case.

DiCaprio didn’t have to answer a question about Spears—posed by prominent defense lawyer David Kenner, who represents Michel—because prosecutors objected, reasonably, that whatever happened with the cake was irrelevant to the case.

DiCaprio’s appearance, and in particular Kenner’s questioning of him, marked an especially whacky episode in almost indescribably wild—and pretty complicated—legal saga. Michel is accused of illegally funneling $20 million from Low to Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. (There is no allegation that Obama’s campaign knew of the scheme.) Five years later, Michel, in exchange for millions of dollars, helped Low arrange a lobbying effort to try to convince Donald Trump’s administration to block a Justice Department investigation into Low—and to extradite to China a billionaire fugitive facing fraud charges there. (That fugitive, Guo Wengui was arrested last month and charged with running an unrelated fraud and money laundering scheme.)

Michel helped Low hire Elliot Broidy, who at the time was a top Republican fundraiser, to secretly lobby Trump on Low’s behalf. Broidy pleaded guilty to related charged in 2020, only to be pardoned by Trump. He is set to appear as a witness for the government at Michel’s trial. Michel’s lawyers also tried to call Trump and Obama, along with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, as witnesses. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly quashed those subpoenas.

DiCaprio, however, had to show up, due to his fairly extensive dealings with Low between around 2010 and 2015. Wearing a sober dark suit and speaking deliberately and often so softly that Kollar-Kotelly repeatedly urged him to raise his voice, the Departed star testified that he recalled a party at which Low mentioned a plan to donate “$20 to $30 million” to the Democratic Party in 2012. DiCaprio said he didn’t hear any more about this plan, which sounds like the campaign finance scheme Michel allegedly assisted with.

“I basically said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money,'” DiCaprio recalled.

After Low offered to finance The Wolf the Wall Street, DiCaprio said he instructed his “team” to conduct a background check of the businessman, which included an investigation by an outside firm. Hollywood studios involved also looked into the financing package Low lined up, DiCaprio said.

Federal prosecutors have since said that Low was laundering money embezzled from a Malaysian state development company, 1MBD, by the country’s former leadership. But Leo’s investigators and the studios apparently missed that. They took Low’s money.

“I was given a green light by my team, as well as the studios,”  the actor said.

DiCaprio was later forced to turn over to the government expensive gifts—including Marlo Brando’s 1955 best actor Oscar and works by Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Diane Arbus—that Low had given him after allegedly buying them with looted funds. But the film’s proceeds were not forfeited, though a production company set up to to finance it agreed in 2018 to pay $60 million settlement to the US government.

Much of DiCaprio’s testimony addressed his interactions with Low at parties the businessman threw. Kenner, for reasons that were not clear, pressed for various details about these events, drawing repeated objections over relevance from Assistant US Attorney Nicole Rae Lockhart. A Lockhart objection stopped DiCaprio from having to say if he recalled visiting the Obama White House with director Martin Scorsese and Low around 2013.

But DiCaprio did recall attending various outrageously extravagant events hosted by Low. Leo said he joined Low on a private plane to attend the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Another time—the exact date was unclear—Low flew DiCaprio “and a massive group of people” to Australia to celebrate New Year’s, the actor said. Kenner asked if Low’s plan was to celebrate the holiday twice. “That was an objective of his, yes,” DiCaprio said.

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We have a considerable $390,000 gap in our online fundraising budget that we have to close by June 30. There is no wiggle room, we've already cut everything we can, and we urgently need more readers to pitch in—especially from this specific blurb you're reading right now.

We'll also be quite transparent and level-headed with you about this.

In "News Never Pays," our fearless CEO, Monika Bauerlein, connects the dots on several concerning media trends that, taken together, expose the fallacy behind the tragic state of journalism right now: That the marketplace will take care of providing the free and independent press citizens in a democracy need, and the Next New Thing to invest millions in will fix the problem. Bottom line: Journalism that serves the people needs the support of the people. That's the Next New Thing.

And it's what MoJo and our community of readers have been doing for 47 years now.

But staying afloat is harder than ever.

In "This Is Not a Crisis. It's The New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, why this moment is particularly urgent, and how we can best communicate that without screaming OMG PLEASE HELP over and over. We also touch on our history and how our nonprofit model makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there: Letting us go deep, focus on underreported beats, and bring unique perspectives to the day's news.

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