WASHINGTON: Grammy-winning rapper Pras Michel is blaming his lawyer after he was convicted of illegal foreign lobbying and money laundering, saying the attorney performed poorly and used artificial intelligence in his closing remarks at the end of the trial.
Michel is seeking a new trial, claiming his attorney, David Kenner, failed him before he was found guilty by a jury in April.
The crimes included conspiring to lobby illegally to end US probes on fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, over his role in the 1MDB global corruption scandal.
Kenner’s use of an experimental AI programme to write his summation hurt Michel’s defence with jurors, the rapper’s new lawyers wrote in a court filing this month. He made frivolous arguments, misunderstood the law and evidence, and ignored weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, they said.
“At bottom, the AI programme failed Kenner, and Kenner failed Michel,” the rapper’s new attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, wrote in a filing in Washington federal court.
The case comes as lawyers have predicted AI will transform the legal profession by helping to analyse contracts, perform legal research and communicate with clients.
The company that created the programme Kenner used, EyeLevel.AI, touted it after the verdict as the first use of generative AI in a federal trial. “The system turned hours or days of legal work into seconds,” Kenner said in a release on the company’s website.
Kenner did not respond to several requests for comment. A Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment.
US district judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has set a Dec 28 hearing to consider evidence in Michel’s motion.
Michel’s request to void his verdict pointed to factual mistakes in Kenner’s closing argument along with errors in legal judgment. In speaking to jurors, he misattributed a Puff Daddy song to the Fugees, the hip hop group that made Michel famous in the 1990s. He also said “Ghetto Superstar” was a Fugees song when it was Michel’s hit.
Jurors convicted Michel of all 10 counts, including conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act; conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent of China, and to commit money laundering; acting as an unregistered agent of Low; acting as an agent of China in seeking removal of billionaire Guo Wengui; and conspiring to funnel Low’s money into the campaign of president Barack Obama in 2012.
Michel argues that Kenner did not make “the strongest and most obvious argument” on the Chinese agent count – prosecutors produced no evidence that he acted at the “direction or control” of China, a key legal element of the charge.
In seeking a new trial, Michel claims Kenner provided ineffective assistance of counsel and had two conflicts of interest that affected his performance. One was that Kenner and another lawyer on the case had a financial stake in EyeLevel.AI, elevating their interest in the AI programme over a competent defence.
EyeLevel co-founder Neil Katz said that claim is simply untrue. “Neither David Kenner nor his associates have any secret financial interest in Eye Level,” Katz said. “That is just something that was made up.”
The other conflict that Michel claims involves prosecutors seeking a contempt charge a month before trial against Kenner for allegedly leaking grand jury material to Bloomberg News.
After the trial started, Kollar-Kotelly assigned the contempt proceeding to another judge, who has set a hearing for Nov 13.
Michel’s lawyers argue Kenner may have gone easier on witnesses because he feared the wrath of prosecutors. During the trial, Kenner said he believed the prosecutors “put the sword of Damocles over me” to control his cross-examinations, Michel’s lawyer wrote.
Early in the trial, Kollar-Kotelly held a hearing to discuss the possible conflict with Michel, the filing shows. She said “there’s an appearance that your attorney could want to please the government” to get prosecutors to abandon the contempt motion. She asked if he understood the conflict.
“I don’t really understand,” Michel said. “All I know is that I’m totally pleased with my attorney.”
Michel’s lawyers also cited errors in rulings by the judge and impermissible testimony that hurt him at trial.
Katz said his Denver-based company, which has about 10 employees, helps companies and law firms build “truthful AI with their private data”. At the Michel trial, it did so “based strictly on the facts of the case as presented in court”, he said. “It’s not bringing in ideas on the open web.”
The technology, which relied on transcripts from the trial, wrote a first draft of the closing argument, Katz said. “It was absolutely not used in the final draft,” he said. “It helps you say what you want to say.”