U.S. Accuses Former U.N. General Assembly President of Corruption

John Ashe is alleged to have taken more than $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese business interests.

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NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06:  Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks at a news conference where it was announced that a former president of the United Nations General Assembly was arrested Tuesday and charged with accepting over $1 million in bribes among other charges
on October 6, 2015 in New York City. John Ashe, the U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda faces conspiracy- and bribery-related charges along with five other people. Those include Francis Lorenzo, a deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks at a news conference where it was announced that a former president of the United Nations General Assembly was arrested Tuesday and charged with accepting over $1 million in bribes among other charges on October 6, 2015 in New York City. John Ashe, the U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda faces conspiracy- and bribery-related charges along with five other people. Those include Francis Lorenzo, a deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks at a news conference where it was announced that a former president of the United Nations General Assembly was arrested Tuesday and charged with accepting over $1 million in bribes among other charges on October 6, 2015 in New York City. John Ashe, the U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda faces conspiracy- and bribery-related charges along with five other people. Those include Francis Lorenzo, a deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Federal agents arrested John Ashe, the 68th president of the U.N. General Assembly, at his suburban New York home on Tuesday and accused him of accepting more than $1.3 million in bribes to promote the interests of Chinese business executives, including a billionaire developer seeking U.N. support for a conference center in Macau.

In exchange for the alleged bribes, Ashe, a former ambassador to the U.N. from Antigua and Barbuda, spent lavishly, buying Rolex watches, designer suits, and installing a $30,000 basketball court in his home, according to Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Ashe’s wife, meanwhile, received $2,500 a month as a “climate change consultant” at a nongovernmental organization set up by one of the alleged conspirators, according to federal prosecutors.

Five other individuals, including a Dominican diplomat named Francis Lorenzo, were also accused of engaging in the scheme and laundering more than $1 million in bribery from Chinese business sources.

Federal agents arrested John Ashe, the 68th president of the U.N. General Assembly, at his suburban New York home on Tuesday and accused him of accepting more than $1.3 million in bribes to promote the interests of Chinese business executives, including a billionaire developer seeking U.N. support for a conference center in Macau.

In exchange for the alleged bribes, Ashe, a former ambassador to the U.N. from Antigua and Barbuda, spent lavishly, buying Rolex watches, designer suits, and installing a $30,000 basketball court in his home, according to Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Ashe’s wife, meanwhile, received $2,500 a month as a “climate change consultant” at a nongovernmental organization set up by one of the alleged conspirators, according to federal prosecutors.

Five other individuals, including a Dominican diplomat named Francis Lorenzo, were also accused of engaging in the scheme and laundering more than $1 million in bribery from Chinese business sources.

“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,” Bharara said at a press conference in Manhattan, adding that Ashe “sold himself and the global institution he led.”

“United in greed, the defendants allegedly formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the U.N. into a platform for profit,” Bharara added.

The case represented a major blow to the United Nations at a time when its ability to police its own people has come under scrutiny.

After the announcement, U.N. officials said that U.S. authorities had not informed them about the investigation into Ashe’s alleged activities and that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had only learned of it after Tuesday’s announcement.

“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,” Ban’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters. Dujarric said that “corruption is not business as usual at the U.N.”

According to a complaint unsealed on Tuesday, Ashe initially began soliciting and accepting bribes in 2011 while he was serving as Antigua’s U.N. ambassador. Lorenzo, a U.S. national who serves as the U.N.-based ambassador from the Dominican Republic, introduced Ashe to a real estate developer in Macau named Ng Lap Seng in the spring of 2011. Ng was interested in acquiring hotels in Antigua and in promoting U.N. business activities in Macau.

Ashe accepted more than $500,000 in bribes from Ng, who was keen to build a multibillion-dollar U.N.-sponsored conference center in Macau, according to the complaint. In February 2012, Ashe, who was then serving as Antigua’s ambassador, recommended to Ban that the U.N. should build a conference center in Macau to host U.N. meetings. Money was laundered through a New York based non-governmental organization, which was linked to Lorenzo. The payback was allegedly either delivered directly in cash to Ashe by Lorenzo and Jeff Yin, who served as an agent for Ng, or directed to contractors carrying out personal services for Ashe.

Lorenzo was arrested Tuesday in New York. Ng and Yin were arrested on Sept. 19, on a separate complaint alleging they had lied to U.S. customs officials about the purpose of more than $4.5 million in cash they brought into the country from China.

Efforts to reach Ashe’s lawyers Tuesday were unsuccessful. Phone calls to the U.N. missions to Antigua and Barbuda and the Dominican Republic were not returned. Ng’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, issued a statement saying, “It is our position that Mr. Seng committed no crime.”

Lorenzo’s attorney, Brian Bieber, said his client is innocent and that he will enter a not guilty plea when formal charges are filed in federal court. “He did not engage in any criminal conduct,” he told Foreign Policy. “We are hopeful that although he is presently detained, he will be released from custody by the end of this week on reasonable bail conditions.”

But American authorities say the corruption continued after Ashe started his one-year stint as the U.N. General Assembly president in September 2013.

U.N. General Assembly presidents have limited power to promote policies at the U.N., but the position, which is akin to speaker of the house for the world body’s 193 member states, carries considerable prestige. Their salary is paid by their own governments, and there is limited scrutiny of how they fund their activities. And Ashe sought to raise more than $3 million to underwrite the costs of his General Assembly Presidency. However, a substantial share of money he raised for running his office went into his own pockets, according to the complaint.

As president of the General Assembly, Ashe traveled to Macau to meet with Ng in exchange for $200,000, which he claimed would be used only to run his office at the United Nations. Ashe’s family was also treated to first-class plane tickets and an $850-a-night stay at a hotel in New Orleans.

Prior to taking the trip, Ashe told Lorenzo that he would not “not go unless I see the funds — funds which are NOT for my personal use but to help run the PGA [President of the General Assembly] office. Period. Let them know I am requesting somewhere between $100k and $250k.”

But federal prosecutors said the money was deposited into Ashe’s personal bank account and used to cover the personal expenses of Ashe and his wife. He would then transfer the money to himself monthly in the form of $25,000 check inscribed in his check book as his salary as General Assembly president.

In a March 15 letter to the U.N. secretary-general, Ashe updated Ban on an effort by developing countries to establish a series of global business incubators for promoting cooperation among developing nations. He said the group had recommended the Macau-based Sun Kian Ip Group, a foundation set up by Ng, to help promote the establishment of a permanent expo meeting center for countries of the south.

The U.S. attorney’s office cited no evidence that the Chinese government or the United Nations secretariat was involved in the schemes. But Bharara said the case remained open, and that further arrests were likely. He also accused a former prime minister of Antigua — unnamed in the indictment — and other Antiguan officials of accepting bribes. But Baldwin Spencer served as Antigua’s prime minister from March 2004 to June 2014, the period during which much of the corruption is alleged to have occurred.

Prosecutors also charged Ashe with soliciting more than $800,000 in bribes from two other individuals, Shiwei Yan, or Sheri Yan, and Heidi Piao, also known as Heidi Park, who were representing Chinese businesses looking to obtain favors from Antiguan officials. Yan and Piao allegedly routed payments through a U.S.-based non profit organization that was allegedly promoting sustainable development initiatives.  It included a $200,000 payment for speaking at an event in China hosted by a Chinese real estate developer.

Yan and Piao also allegedly arranged for a $300,000 payment on behalf of an unnamed Chinese media executive, according to the complaint. Financial records show that Ashe sent $100,000 to the then-Antiguan prime minister, the complaint said.

By August 2013, one month before Ashe began serving as U.N. General Assembly president, Yan and Piao began paying Ashe about $20,000 per month for a job as honorary chairman of an unnamed New York-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development. They sent Ashe another $100,000 a month later, purportedly to pay for a U.N. reception in his honor. Ashe subsequently traveled with Piao to Antigua to discuss a $20 million deal to install an international security system in Antigua.

“Ashe’s intercession on [the media executive’s] behalf resulted in a signed ‘memorandum of understanding’ between [the firm] and the government of Antigua,” according to a press release issued by the U.S. attorney’s office.

Ashe was also charged with two counts of falsifying his tax returns in 2013 and 2014, disguising more than $1.2 million in ill-gotten gains.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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