UN Corruption Probe Leads to Ex-Assembly President's Arrest

  • Bribery charges against Ashe tip of iceberg, prosecutor says
  • UN Secretary General expresses shock over bribery allegations

John Ashe.

Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images

A former president of the United Nations General Assembly and a billionaire Macau developer were part of a group arrested on bribery charges in what U.S. officials call the early stages of a probe into corruption at the organization.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, issued a warning to officials at the UN Tuesday as he announced the charges against John Ashe, who’s accused of taking $1.3 million in bribes, and Francis Lorenzo, the ambassador to the UN for the Dominican Republic, who’s accused of helping developer Ng Lap Seng pay bribes to Ashe and others.

"There is a lot more work to do," Bharara said at a press conference, adding his team had only scratched the surface. "Is bribery business as usual at the UN?"

The complaint lays out in detail a series of payments from Chinese nationals, as well as Lorenzo, to Ashe, that were intended to get UN support for a multibillion-dollar project in Macau. Separately, other Chinese nationals paid Ashe hundreds of thousands of dollars to open doors in his native Antigua, according to the complaint. Ashe also introduced a Chinese business executive to a UN counterpart from Kenya, with the goal of facilitating business investments in Nairobi, the U.S. said.

Other Connections

The new charges may be connected to other cases, with Ng last year having failed to comply with a request from U.S. prosecutors to answer questions before a Nevada grand jury in an overseas bribery investigation. His name also came up in a lawsuit alleging Sheldon Adelson, the 82-year-old billionaire founder and chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp., ordered secret investigations in business and financial affairs of Macau government officials.

Adelson said he didn’t know Ng in testimony at a May hearing in Las Vegas.

Ng, 68, who has a personal net worth of about $1.8 billion, has been held in a federal jail in Manhattan since he was arrested Sept. 19 in a separate case, accused of bringing $4.5 million into the country and lying about its purpose to U.S. authorities. Bharara said prosecutors were investigating what Ng did with the cash.

“We’re looking at all the money,” Bharara said. “We follow the money.”

Ashe, the former ambassador to the UN for Antigua and Barbuda, was also accused of sharing some of the bribe money with the Caribbean nation’s prime minister as he lobbied for the Chinese interests, the U.S. said.

“Going to Antigua on Thursday to vote and would need to take something for the PM,” Ashe wrote Lorenzo in a June 8, 2014, e-mail, according to the U.S. “Hope I can have the $26 K in cash before then.”

According to the complaint, Ashe sent $100,000 to the prime minister in a series of $20,000 checks and he sent about $13,000 to the prime minister’s political party. That was part of the $170,000 in total the prime minister received from one of Ashe’s bank accounts, the U.S. said.

The Antigua mission to the UN didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Six defendants named in the criminal complaint unsealed in Manhattan federal court were arrested, said Kelly Langmesser, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s New York office. Five of them were held without bail after appearing in court.

Ambassador ‘Trusted’

Lorenzo was arrested outside the midtown Manhattan offices of the South-South News. He’s the president of the news organization, which covers global development issues as well as the United Nations.

“Ambassador Lorenzo acted in good faith at all times,” said his lawyer, Brian Bieber. “He trusted the people he associated with and relied upon their integrity in all business dealings. He had no knowledge of any of their criminal actions.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis agreed to release Ashe on $1 million bond secured by his property and directed that he remain under house arrest with electronic monitoring.

Robert Van Lierop, Ashe’s lawyer, said his client had a “sterling reputation” and wouldn’t leave the U.S. because his family lives here.

"We will fight the charges and he will be acquitted," Van Lierop said after court.

Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hong Piao, whom the U.S. accused of arranging bribes for Ashe, were both arrested at a Manhattan residence near the UN’s Manhattan headquarters, Langmesser said.

Lawyers for the other four defendants declined to comment on the charges.

One of Ng’s lawyers is Guy David Singer, a partner at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe who specializes in foreign bribery cases. Singer was also the lead prosecutor of the government’s case against lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who went to prison after bilking Indian tribes.

The UN wasn’t told about the U.S. investigation and Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon learned of the allegations Tuesday morning, Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for Ban, told reporters at a daily briefing.

Ban “was shocked and deeply troubled to learn of the allegations, which go to the heart of the integrity of the UN,” Dujarric said. “Corruption is not business as usual at the UN.”

The organization will cooperate with U.S. authorities, he said.

In February 2012, Ashe submitted a document to the UN supporting Ng’s Macau Conference Center, the U.S. said. Lorenzo used the document in promotional materials with other officials and an investment bank to imply the center was likely to be supported by the UN, the U.S. said.

Ban’s staff “have no recollection of any discussion between John Ashe and the Secretary-General relating to a center in Macau,” Dujarric said.

Diplomatic Immunity

Ashe was also charged with failing to report $1.2 million in income, including the bribes, to the Internal Revenue Service. It’s the only charge which wouldn’t be covered by diplomatic immunity, although he waived that privilege when he applied to be a permanent resident in the U.S. in 2000, according to the complaint.

After his arrest, Ashe told investigators he had accepted bribes, prosecutor Daniel Richenthal said in court. “Over the course of years he accepted millions of dollars in bribes in various forms, some of which he admitted after he was arrested today,” Richenthal said.

He may have residual immunity for acts that were done within the scope of his official positions, the U.S. said.

Ashe received money for a family vacation and the construction of a basketball court at his house in Dobbs Ferry, New York, prosecutors said. Some of the bribes went to bank accounts Ashe set up to fund his presidency, according to the complaint. Money from those accounts also went to pay his mortgage and other items such as a $40,000 lease on a new BMW, $54,000 for a pair of Rolex watches and $59,000 for a single order of custom-tailored suits, Bharara said.

“For Rolexes, bespoke suits and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the UN General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led," said Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.

Ashe steered a Chinese technology executive to a Kenyan UN official in order to facilitate meetings between the Chinese and government officials in Nairobi, according to the complaint. The meetings took place and the U.S. suggests, but doesn’t state explicitly, that similar bribes were paid.

Bharara’s corruption allegations at the UN follow his pursuit of similar crimes in New York’s state capital of Albany and come several months after Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, announced charges against officials from the international soccer federation.

"If proven, today’s charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues so many state and local governments infects the United nations as well," Bharara said.

The case is U.S. v. Ashe, 15-mag-3562, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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