MANHATTAN (CN) – A former United Nations official took more than $1.3 million in bribes from a Macau billionaire and the executives of a nongovernmental organization, federal prosecutors said Monday.
The unsealing of the criminal complaint against John Ashe, who headed the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly, came with 61-year-old’s arrest this morning at his home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Addressing reporters at a subsequent press conference, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the case shows the “cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well.”
“Although this case involves the high-flying world of billionaire executives and influential U.N. officials, at its core, it was just a classic quid pro quo criminal scheme: bribes paid in exchange for official actions taken,” Bharara told reporters at 1 St. Andrews Plaza, less than six miles south of the global diplomatic headquarters.
Ashe’s bribes included custom-tailored suits from Hong Kong worth roughly $59,000, two Rolexes valued at $59,000, and the lease on a BMW X5, which added up to roughly $40,000, according to the 37-page complaint.
“United in greed, the defendants allegedly formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit,” Bharara said at the press conference.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at a noon press briefing that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just learned of the 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,” Dujarric said.
Calling the prosecution unprecedented, Dujarric emphasized that the president of the general assembly does not report to the secretary-general.
Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane who assumed office as the president of the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 16, said he had little insight into the allegations.
“Coming from a country which is consistently No. 1 on the world transparency index and having served for 34 years … I certainly am shocked about it, and I think the United Nations and its representatives should be held to the highest standards of transparency and ethics,” said Lykketoft, a former leader of Denmark’s Democratic Party.
The allegations against Ashe shine light on the Sept. 19 arrest of Chinese real estate mogul Ng Lap Seng and his assistant Jeff Yin, who are also charged in the new complaint.
With prosecutors accusing Ng and Yin of sneaking $4.5 million past U.S. customs officials over the course of 10 trips, press reports uncovered Ng as the source of hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally funneled to the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration.
Adding to the intrigue, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to the case is a member of the public corruption unit.
Though Ng and Yin insisted that they planned to spend the money on gambling and art collection, the government said its surveillance shows otherwise.
The complaint says Ng, Yin and Francis Lorenzo, who was a deputy permanent representative for the United Nations to the Dominican Republic, arranged for Ashe to receive a $200,000 wire payment in exchange for meeting with Ng about a real estate project.
Prosecutors say Ashe took another $300,000 to submit 67-year-old Ng’s proposal for a multibillion-dollar, U.N.-sponsored conference center in Macau.
Lorenzo separately arranged for Ashe’s wife to land a $2,500 per month job as a “climate change consultant” for an unnamed nongovernmental organization, prosecutors say.
Claiming that Ashe took more than $1.3 million in bribes in total, prosecutors say the other $800,000 came from “various Chinese businessmen,” funneled through two executives from a nongovernmental organization.
Prosecutors named both executives, Sheri Yan, 57, and Heidi Park, 52, as defendants. Yan and Park are the CEO and director of finance for the Global Sustainability Foundation, respectively.
The foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Yan and Park tried to “promote the bribery of the Antiguan prime minister,” who received $100,000 from one of Ashe’s accounts as president of the General Assembly, according to the complaint. Ashe was born in Antigua.
While Lorenzo’s wife and the Antiguan prime minister are not named in the complaint, the Carribbean nation’s leader at the time was Baldwin Spencer.
Bharara said that the investigation is continuing.
On top of cash, Ashe accepted “a family vacation” at an $800-per-night hotel in New Orleans, and “construction of a basketball court at his house in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y,” prosecutors say.
The complaint quotes from an email Ashe allegedly sent Lorenzo on March 5.
“I am asking [Ng] to make a contribution the the [sic] Office of the PGA if he wants me to go out of my way to visit Macau to see his project,” Ashe wrote, according to the complaint. “Even though Ng has made a lot of empty promises in the past, I am willing to travel to Macau to see his project, since it is important to him. But it has to made absolutely clear to him that I will not go unless I see the funds – funds which are NOT for my personal use but to help run the PGA office. Period. Please let them know that I am requesting somewhere between $100K and $250K.”
Ashe face up to six years in prison for two counts of submitting fraudulent tax returns.
Lorenzo, Ng, and Yin could spend up to 15 years in prison if convicted of bribery and conspiracy.
Yan and Park are additionally charged with a conspiracy to commit money laundering on top of the bribery counts, potentially landing them behind bars for 35 years.