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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
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Bail Granted Diplomat|in U.N. Bribery Case

MANHATTAN (CN) - Though prosecutors called him a "massive" flight risk, a federal judge granted bail Friday to a diplomat accused of acting at the behest of a Chinese billionaire in a $1.3 million bribery scheme involving a former United Nations president.

Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative for the United Nations to the Dominican Republic, could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted in connection to a massive corruption probe that led to charges against him and five others Tuesday.

Four of the suspects remain incarcerated: Chinese real estate mogul Ng Lap Seng; Ng's assistant, John Yin; and two executives of a nongovernmental organization named Sheri Yan and Heidi Park.

Before the start of a 2 1/2-hour bail hearing Friday morning, only one of the suspects had been released on bail before trial: John Ashe, a 61-year-old who had served as president of the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richtenthal argued that Lorenzo posed an even greater risk of flight than had Ashe, a New Yorker born in Antigua.

Unlike the other suspects, "this defendant in particular is a current official of a foreign country," Richtenthal said.

The arguments circled repeatedly about the question of diplomatic immunity, a possibility that the prosecutor said would make Lorenzo "difficult or impossible to arrest."

While Lorenzo insists he makes only $6,000 a month, Richtenthal claimed that the diplomat signed a $25,000-a-month contract with Ng, and that the billionaire also "gifted" Lorenzo a $3.6 million apartment in the Trump Towers near U.N. headquarters.

That was one of at least three apartments where Lorenzo has been spotted, and he also has powerful friends around the world, Richtenthal said.

"Not everyone is in custody, and they have every incentive to ferret this defendant out," the prosecutor added, referring to Lorenzo.

The suspects in this case have "resources beyond one's imagination," including private aircraft and contacts with high-level government officials around the world, Richtenthal said.

Lorenzo's attorney, Brian Bieber of the Coral Gables, Fla.-based firm Hirschhorn & Bieber, said that his client "voluntarily surrendered" to authorities this week even though he could have evaded capture before his arrest.

Since Ng had been arrested on Sept. 19, the diplomat had fielded press inquiries weeks before his own arrest about his connection to the billionaire, Bieber added.

After the hearing, Lorenzo told reporters that the Wall Street Journal was the outlet that contacted him.

Trying to paint a more sympathetic portrait of his client, Bieber called Lorenzo's friends and associates to the witness stand.

Two of them were Lorenzo's colleagues at the U.N.-centric publication South South News, a publication that prosecutors describe as a "front group" for Ng, who allegedly wired $12 million the self-described "21st century media platform."

Christian Batres, a graphic designer from Montclair, N.J., who has worked with Lorenzo during his five years of freelancing for South South News, said that he knew the diplomat as a churchgoing man.

U.N. Ambassador of El Salvador Carlos Garcia testified that he started working for the outlet since January of this year, and always knew Lorenzo to be a "leader."

The third witness, Jose Daniel Mejia from Pembroke Pines, Fla., said he knew Lorenzo from his work building the Model U.N. program, allowing young students to mimic a career in diplomacy.

Elaborating on these experiences later, Lorenzo's attorney Bieber said that his client's diplomatic career began in 2000 with a meeting with actor Michael Douglas, boxer Mohammad Ali and former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Lorenzo went on to build the Dominican Republic's first U.N. association and a Montessori Model U.N. program that brought 3,000 students to their headquarters in New York and Geneva, the lawyer added.

But that was in the past, Bieber insisted, asserting that his client had been "suspended" from diplomatic service.

The defense attorney's comment appeared to have blindsided prosecutor Richtenthal, who said it was the first time the government had been told that.

After Lorenzo's lawyer produced the letter, prosecutors quickly pointed out that the letter mentioned only an unspecified suspension of Lorenzo's "post."

"I noticed that too," interjected U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry Pitman.

"It is carefully written," Richenthal added. "I admire the author, but it has no bearing on Your Honor's decision today."

After staring at the document at length, Judge Pitman ruled in favor of Lorenzo.

"I don't think this is a case that warrants [pretrial] detention," he said.

Though Pitman said he did not want to "trivialize" the charged offenses, he noted that they did not involve crimes of violence or terrorism.

Setting bail at $2 million, Pitman ordered Lorenzo to live with his mother in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. Lorenzo's mother, brother, two sisters and five other people must sign court papers for his release.

Pitman also ordered electronic monitoring, a freeze on Lorenzo's assets, the surrender of his four passports and travel restrictions within two New York federal judicial districts.

The order also demands that Lorenzo waive diplomatic immunity, though it remains unclear what effect this may have.

Richtenthal said that it may not be Lorenzo's to waive, as it is up to the sovereign country to decide who can assert it.

Meanwhile, Bieber told reporters after the hearing: "Diplomatic immunity very well may apply to some or all of Mr. Lorenzo's actions."

"Once the government decides to disclose its evidence, we will be in a better position to discuss these very important legal principles," he said.

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