A former president of the United Nations General Assembly, John Ashe, and three others were arrested in the United States on Tuesday charged with taking $1,3 million in bribes from Chinese businessmen, including developer Ng Lap Seng.
"Although this case involves the high flying world of billionaire business executives and influential UN officials, at its core, it was just a classic, quid pro quo criminal scheme, bribes paid in exchange for official actions taken," US Attorney Preet Bharara said at a press conference in New York City on Tuesday.
The 61-year-old former president and ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda was arrested by New York police at his home in Dobbs Ferry outside the city and three others were detained early on Tuesday.
Ashe, who served a year-long term from September 2013, allegedly took bribes in return for supporting plans to build a UN conference center in Macau promoted by Chinese developer Ng Lap Seng. The court document revealed on Tuesday that through intermediaries, Ng paid Asha more than $500,000. The intermediaries included Ng’s assistant Jeff Yin and Francis Lorenzo, a deputy UN ambassador from the Dominican Republic.
The complaint said Ashe delivered a written request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon “which claimed that there was a purported need to build the UN Macau Conference Center,” in exchange for payments.
"Among other things, Ashe accepted over $500,000" from Ng who was "seeking to build a multi-billion dollar, UN-sponsored conference center in Macau," the complaint said.
Prosecutors said the bribe scheme unfolded between 2011 and 2014 when Ashe held the position as head of the General Assembly.
Ashe also received more than $800,000 from Chinese businessmen to advocate on their behalf within the UN and Antigua. The complaint said he gave some of the money to Antigua’s prime minister at the time.
Bharara said Ashe used the UN as a “platform for profit,” referring to the center project and his promotion of Chinese interests in his home country.
The UN deputy ambassador from the Dominican Republic Francis Lorenzo was also arrested along with Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hong Piao on multiple bribery-related counts.
Last month, Ng and his assistant Jeff Yin were arrested for smuggling more than $4.5 million into the US.
Ashe and five others are also accused of using a fake non-government organisation to take bribes. The NGO’s President Lorenzo was paid a $20,000 salary.
The complaint said Ashe took more than $3 million from foreign governments and officials in accounts at two major American banks from 2012 to 2014.
He was claimed to have transferred some money to his wife’s bank accounts and spent the cash on luxury goods.
"For Rolex watches, bespoke suits and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th president of the U.N. General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led. United in greed, the defendant allegedly formed a corrupt alliance in business and government, converting the U.N. into a platform for profit. I think people know by now that we will continue to do everything we can to root out public corruption, whether we find it from city council, in Albany, or as here, in the United Nations," Bharara said.
Bharara stated that more arrests were likely to come as the investigation continued.
‘Shocked and deeply troubled’
UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon was ‘shocked and deeply troubled’ by the bribery charges unprecedent in the UN's 70-year history, Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.
"We've obviously just learned of these very serious allegations this morning. Of course the Secretary-General was shocked and deeply troubled to learn this morning of the allegations against John Ashe, the former President of the General Assembly, which go to the heart of the integrity of the United Nations," Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
"Corruption is not business as usual at he U.N.," he said, adding that if the UN secretariat is contacted by US authorities, it will cooperate with them.