MANHATTAN (CN) — Five miles south from the United Nations headquarters, a federal jury heard sharply different narratives Thursday about a Chinese billionaire at the heart of a diplomatic-corruption scandal.
U.S. prosecutors have been building the case for nearly two years that real estate mogul Ng Lap Seng got the imprimatur of the United Nations on a multibillion-dollar conference center in Macau by padding the pockets of two powerful diplomats.
“This case is about a powerful businessman who bribed two ambassadors of the United Nations right here in New York,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Zolkind argued Thursday afternoon.
Zolkind said Ng had his personal legacy in mind — as well as increasing the value of his surrounding properties in China’s southeastern resort city — by securing U.N. sponsorship with a $300,000 payment to John Ashe, the former president of the U.N. General Assembly.
Ashe, who died last year at age 61, had spent decades in diplomatic positions in his native Antigua and Barbuda. He dedicated much of his career to combating the Caribbean nations’ most urgent problems, particularly climate change, water access and food security.
But U.S. prosecutors blotted Ashe’s obituary with charges that he accepted hundreds of thousands in bribes, custom-tailored suits from Hong Kong worth roughly $59,000, two Rolexes worth $59,000 and a lease on a BMW X5, valued at roughly $40,000.
Ng’s attorney cast his client’s collaboration with Ashe as one borne of altruism — connecting Ashe’s struggle for climate justice and Ng’s philanthropic aims to create a forum where developing nations could address their shared concerns.
“Mr. Ng was asked by ambassadors and other people to submit money to finance a project that they believed would be a tremendously good thing to do,” said Tai Park, from the Wall Street firm Park Jensen Bennett. “It’s the agenda of the developing nations: the global south nations.”
In socioeconomic circles, the North-South divide is the preferred nomenclature for what had been branded as the first, second and third worlds. The global north is home to the leading industrial nations that make up the Group of Seven, while developing nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia make up the global south.
The mission of Ng’s project is undisputed: a business center that would permanently host the annual South-South Expo, a United Nations forum where developing nations could address their concerns year after year.
Park described it as a G-7 alternative. “That’s what they thought they could have as a benefit if they had their own permanent center,” he said.
Prosecutor Zolkind countered that, whatever his original intentions, Ng tainted the idea in his execution.
“He decided to cheat, to pay bribes in order to get an unfair advantage, and that is why we are here today,” Zolkind said.
With Ng’s trial expected to run for six weeks, U.S. prosecutors intend to prove their case through emails, documentation, video evidence and a cooperating witness: Francis Lorenzo, the former deputy permanent representative for the United Nations to the Dominican Republic.
Adding soft media power to hard real estate, Ng sponsored the press organization South-South News, whose name alludes to the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation.
Lorenzo collected $25,000 a month serving as president of South-South News, and was “gifted” a $3.6 million apartment in Trump World Tower near U.N. headquarters.
Park denied any impropriety behind the enterprise.
“CNN, they focus on world events in the South if there’s a disaster,” he said, referring to the Southern Hemisphere. “Let’s have an organization in the South that covers their issues.”
The news organization also gave Ashe’s wife a $2,500-per-month contract as a climate-change consultant.
While prosecutors called the gig a “no-show job,” Park noted that the wife — Anilla Cherian — is a respected environmentalist who authored the book “Energy and Global Climate Change: Bridging the Sustainable Development Divide.”
“She is a climate-change expert, especially with respect to developing nations,” he said.
With Lorenzo expected to offer incriminating testimony, Ng’s attorney readied an attack on the witness’s credibility.
“This is a case about philanthropy and a deep betrayal of that man by people like Francis Lorenzo,” Park said.
Denying that a U.N. conference center would have given Ng’s surrounding properties a boost, Park argued that the enterprise was too costly to have reaped any profits.
“Sometimes people engage in massive philanthropy,” Park said. “It’s really as simple as that.”
Witness testimony begins on Friday.