Thursday, March 3, 2016
Former U.N. President and Chinese Billionaire Are Accused in Graft Scheme
A former top United Nations official and a billionaire real estate developer from the Chinese territory of Macau were accused on Tuesday of engaging in a broad corruption scheme, according to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
The former president of the United Nations General Assembly, John W. Ashe, a diplomat from Antigua, was one of six people identified in a criminal complaint outlining a bribery scheme that involved more than $1 million in payments from sources in China for assistance in real estate deals and other business interests.
The case is highly embarrassing to the United Nations, which had vowed to act with greater transparency and accountability after past scandals. Mr. Ashe is the most senior diplomat to be accused of such graft, and it remains unclear whether the case will prompt the organization to review how it elects leaders of the General Assembly. It is different from the oil-for-food program scandal in Iraq a decade ago, when an independent commission found widespread abuse.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said through his spokesman that he was “shocked and deeply saddened” at the accusations of corruption.
“They go to the heart of the integrity of the legislative process of the United Nations,” the spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said on Tuesday.
The complaint alleges a broad pattern of corruption on the part of Mr. Ashe, 61, who was accused of using the bribes to support a lavish lifestyle: spending $59,000 on hand-tailored suits in Hong Kong in 2013 and 2014, buying two Rolex watches in 2014 for $54,000, and later that year paying $40,000 to lease a new BMW X5.
He also bought a membership at a South Carolina country club for $69,000, and solicited money to construct a $30,000 basketball court at his home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., according to the complaint.
“If proven, today’s charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well,” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said at a news conference. He said that the investigation was still in its early stages, adding, “We’re looking at a lot of things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you would see other people charged.”
The charges represent a widening of the investigation of Ng Lap Seng, a developer based in Macau who was arrested by customs officials in New York last month and charged with bringing $4.5 million into the United States under false pretenses.
Mr. Ashe, according to the complaint, took payments from Mr. Ng and used “his official position to obtain for Ng potentially lucrative investments in Antigua.” In one instance, $200,000 was wired into Mr. Ashe’s private bank account in exchange for a foreign trip in 2014 in his official capacity, to discuss a conference center that Mr. Ng wanted to develop for the United Nations.
The campaign to construct a permanent center in Macau seems to have started as early as February 2012, when Mr. Ashe, in his capacity as the ambassador to the United Nations from Antigua and Barbuda, proposed a “permanent expo and meeting centre” to be created with help from Mr. Ng’s company, the Sun Kian Ip Group of China.
Mr. Ashe asked the secretary general to circulate such a proposal to the General Assembly. The proposal had the backing of several other countries — including Bangladesh and Kenya — and Mr. Ashe’s letter said that the “Sun Kian Ip Group of China has welcomed the initiative and will serve as the representative for the implementation of the Permanent Expo and Meeting Centre.”
Since then, neither the General Assembly nor the secretary general’s office seem to have taken any action on the proposal.
But Mr. Ng has been generous to the United Nations. In May, his foundation gave the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation $1.5 million, in part to host a conference in Macau in late August to discuss cooperation among countries of the global south.
At that session, several envoys spoke of the need to build a United Nations center there; the office later issued a news release endorsing a permanent center in Macau: “Participants at the Forum urged the creation of a permanent expo through a substantial public-private partnership.” Mr. Dujarric said the secretary general did not attend the session, but sent a message.
Mr. Ashe, by then, had no role at the United Nations General Assembly. His term as its president lasted from September 2013 to September 2014. He stepped down from his post as ambassador later that year.
Mr. Ashe was arrested on Tuesday morning at his home in Dobbs Ferry; he was not charged in the bribery scheme but was charged with two counts of filing false federal tax returns. The five other defendants, including Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative to the United Nations for the Dominican Republic, were charged with bribery and conspiracy counts.
“Ashe made it very clear in emails and documents that he could use his access to the prime minister and other government officials to set up meetings and promote contracts with businessmen who were willing to pay,” said Diego Rodriguez, the head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Bharara did not address why Mr. Ashe, a lawful permanent resident of the United States, was charged only with tax violations and not bribery, like the other defendants. He did say that he did not expect claims of diplomatic immunity to succeed in the case.
“We don’t think any immunity issues would arise in such a way to prevent the current charges, and obviously we do all that in consultation with the State Department,” he said.
A federal magistrate judge, James C. Francis IV, set a $1 million bond for Mr. Ashe, and said he would be subject to home detention and electronic monitoring, and must surrender his travel documents. It was unclear how quickly Mr. Ashe could post bond.
Prosecutors had sought his detention, saying he posed “a severe risk of flight,” while Mr. Ashe’s lawyer, Robert F. Van Lierop, argued that the charges were only allegations, which his client intended to fight. “I expect him to be fully acquitted,” Mr. Van Lierop said after the hearing. The five other defendants were all ordered held pending further proceedings.
Mr. Ng was being held without bail on a conspiracy charge filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, accusing him of lying to Customs and Border Protection officials about the purpose of the cash he brought into the country over a two-year period.
Mr. Ng was named in a 1998 Democratic Party financing scandal in which he was accused of wiring more than $1 million from accounts in Macau and Hong Kong to bank accounts in Washington and Arkansas, then the home of former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Ng denied any wrongdoing in that case.
Mr. Ng’s personal assistant, Jeff C. Yin, was arrested at the same time as his boss, charged with the same offense, and is also being held without bail. He is also named in the criminal complaint released on Tuesday.
According to the complaint, Mr. Ashe took some $200,000 from two other defendants, Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hong Piao, in exchange for attending a conference in China in his official capacity as president of the General Assembly. Ms. Yan and Ms. Piao were also charged with money laundering conspiracy.
Alex Spiro, a lawyer for Mr. Ng, said in a statement on Tuesday that Mr. Ng has “committed no crime.” Lawyers for Mr. Lorenzo, Mr. Yin, Ms. Yan and Ms. Piao had no comment.
Mr. Ashe named the two women official advisers on economic matters to the office of the prime minister of Antigua. In an email sent with the letters of appointment, Mr. Ashe stated, “I believe these complete the outstanding requests that were made to me.”
The current president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, addressing reporters in the afternoon, pledged to cooperate with authorities.
“The United Nations and its representatives should be held to the highest standards of transparency and ethics,” he said. He added, “Corruption has no place in the United Nations or anywhere else.”