NEW YORK – A constellation of hip-hop stars gathered Wednesday for closing arguments in the trial of a top rap executive who prosecutors say laundered more than $1 million in drug money for a notorious cocaine kingpin.
Irving Lorenzo, chief of the Murder Inc. label, and his brother Christopher knew Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff was a "a thug and a drug dealer, and they were helping him cover it up," Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn Pokorny said at the Lorenzos' racketeering trial.
Between signing autographs at the Brooklyn courthouse, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Fat Joe and Russell Simmons took front-row seats in support of Irving Lorenzo, a music producer and entrepreneur known professionally as Irv Gotti.
"Poverty and ignorance is more of problem in our community than convicting our poets," Simmons told reporters outside court.
Defense attorney Gerald Shargel argued that the Lorenzo brothers were victims of guilt by association.
"There's nothing illegal about knowing a criminal, about socializing with a criminal, even doing business with a criminal, unless you commit a crime," Shargel said. "Irv and Chris Lorenzo committed no crime."
The government claims Murder Inc., home to platinum-selling artists Ashanti and Ja Rule, struck an illicit deal with "one of the biggest, baddest, most dangerous drug lords in New York City," Pokorny told the jury.
McGriff allegedly funneled more than $1 million in drug money through Murder Inc. in return for serving as the Lorenzos' protector and enforcer. A government witness who once worked at the label testified that he saw a "huge amount" of money delivered in shopping bags and a shoe box in 2000.
Murder Inc. cut tens of thousands of dollars in checks for sham corporations controlled by McGriff, including a movie company that produced a straight-to-video film called "Crime Partners 2000," Pokorny said. The label also covered his expenses as he traveled around the country masquerading as an entertainment executive, she added.
The defense has portrayed the Lorenzo brothers — both charged with money laundering — as legitimate businessmen who made it big adopting a gangster persona and starting Murder Inc. with Def Jam, a subsidiary of Universal Music. They decided to invest their own money in McGriff's movie because he was an old friend from their Queens neighborhood, Shargel said.
"Even if Supreme McGriff was the biggest drug dealer in the world, and even if 'Crime Partners' was the worst film in the history of American entertainment, there is nothing illegal about giving backing to a movie," he said.
The brothers are free on $1 million bail. McGriff, who faces murder charges, will have a separate trial.
The judge barred prosecutors from introducing evidence that the Lorenzos knew about an alleged plot by McGriff to shoot 50 Cent amid the rapper's ongoing war of words with Ja Rule. Investigators believe 50 Cent, who famously survived the shooting, had angered the drug lord by writing the song "Ghetto Koran" about him.