Ex-UN official among 6 held in bribery scheme
A former president of the United Nations General Assembly turned the world body into a “platform for profit” by accepting over US$1 million in bribes from a billionaire Chinese real estate mogul and other businesspeople to pave the way for lucrative investments, a prosecutor charged Tuesday.
John Ashe, a former U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served in the largely ceremonial post as head of the 193-nation assembly from September 2013 to September 2014, faces tax fraud charges in what authorities call a conspiracy with five others, including Francis Lorenzo, a deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic who lives in the Bronx.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara repeatedly noted that it was early in the investigation and told reporters that as it proceeds: “We will be asking: Is bribery business as usual at the U.N.?”
He added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see other people charged.”
The prosecutor said Ashe “converted the United Nations into a platform for profit” when bribery opportunities were dangled before him by Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng, 67, and others.
“We obviously just learned of the very serious allegations this morning,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U. N. SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon, told reporters. Dujarric said Ban was “shocked and deeply troubled” by the allegations that “go to the heart and integrity of the U.N.”
Still, he challenged Bharara’s insinuations, saying, “Corruption is not business as usual at the U.N.” He said the U.N.’s legal department and senior officials were not informed of the probe in advance.
Dujarric noted that the president of the General Assembly “does not report to the secretarygeneral and is completely independent in functions.”
Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the government of the eastern Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda would fully cooperate with U.S. authorities. The previous government employed Ashe.
“This has serious implications for the country. You’re talking about an international platform for peace and global security being used for corrupt purposes,” Browne said.
Those charged in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday in U.S. court included Ng, who was arrested two weeks ago along with his chief assistant, Jeff C. Yin, 29, a U.S. citizen whose bail was revoked last week over allegations he lied to investigators after his arrest.
Ng’s attorney, Alex Spiro, said in a statement that his client “committed no crime.”
Lawyers for Yin and Lorenzo, 48, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis set bail at US$1 million and ordered electronic monitoring for Ashe after rejecting the government’s request that he be held without bail as a flight risk. Francis noted that two tax charges carry a total potential maximum penalty of six years in prison.
The prosecutor said in court that Ashe made incriminating statements related to the alleged bribery scheme following his arrest and more serious charges were possible.
In this Sept. 17, 2013 file photo, Ambassador John Ashe, of Antigua and Barbuda, the president of the General Assembly’s 68th session, speaks at United Nations headquarters.