MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal jury convicted a Hong Kong businessman on Wednesday for his role in a more than $2 million bribery scheme that involved two African autocrats – and implicated former presidents of the U.N. General Assembly.
Deliberations had barely begun this morning before the jury found that Chi Ping Patrick Ho, the head of a think tank tied to CEFC China Energy, corrupted the leaders of Chad and Uganda. Prosecutors said that Ho arranged for a $2 million bribe to Chad President Idriss Deby, as well as $500,000 apiece to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and Sam Kutesa, his foreign minister.
A jury found Ho found guilty of five violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and two counts of money laundering.
The sole count on which Ho was acquitted, a money-laundering conspiracy, involved CEFC’s payments to Chad’s president.
At trial, Senegalese diplomat Cheikh Gadio said that Ho’s delegation at CEFC paid this bribe to Deby with several gift boxes stuffed with cash inside Chad’s presidential palace in 2014.
“That is a quintessential bribe,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Samuel Zolkind said during closing arguments on Tuesday. “It’s a classic – like something out of a movie.”
Gadio, who arranged Ho’s summit with Deby through his consulting company Sarata, testified that he had a meeting with Ho inside the United Nations-adjacent Trump World Towers.
CEFC’s subsidiary owned unit 78B inside that building, a magnet for foreign cash brimming with Russian oligarch tenants.
Evidence at trial implicated two successive ex-U.N. General Assembly presidents: Kutesa and John Ashe.
Kutesa has not been charged, but Ashe was indicted in a related scheme before he died in an apparent weightlifting accident.
More than three years have passed since ex-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara started his anti-corruption crackdown at the United Nations with Ashe’s indictment, and it has continued with his successors Joon Kim and Geoffrey Berman.
Berman, the current U.S. attorney for Manhattan, celebrated Ho’s conviction in a statement.
“As the jury’s verdict makes clear, Ho’s repeated attempts to corrupt foreign leaders were not business as usual, but criminal efforts to undermine the fairness of international markets and erode the public’s faith in its leaders,” he wrote.
‘A Network of Middlemen, Millionaires and Suspected Spies’
As the secretary general of China Energy Funding Committee – a U.S. and Hong Kong-registered charity with United Nations accreditation – Ho was supposed to be the corporation’s philanthropic face. But trial revealed the think tank doubling as a front for CEFC’s corporate designs. Ho reported back to CEFC’s chairman Ye Jianming in regular briefings that he marked “highly confidential” and “super urgent.”
Officially an energy company, CEFC also lists financial services among as a “core business,” but trial showed the conglomerate pursuing various other side businesses in Africa. Evidence showed that Ho considered purchasing banks in Africa like Barclays and offered to sell arms to Chad, a country with a checkered human rights record locked in conflict with the militant group Boko Haram.
“Quick deal: 200M USD up front for 10% rights, plus some arms and renminbi discount loans,” Ho fired off in one text message to Gadio, placing a bid on Chad’s oil fields for cash, weapons and discount loans on Chinese currency.
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, did not respond to an email requesting comment on the trial’s revelations.
Before trial began, clues emerged that CEFC had a murkier side. Prosecutors filed a motion seeking to admit evidence showing that Ho “sought to and did broker arms and transactions unrelated to the Chad and Uganda schemes charged in this case.”
In the same motion, prosecutors accused Ho of helping to violation U.S. sanctions against Iran, an uncharged offense that never came up at trial.
The Sydney Morning Herald later published an article characterizing Ho as part of a clandestine Chinese government operation targeting the United Nations.
“This bold operation used UN-approved non-government organizations (NGOs) with apparently charitable intentions as fronts for channeling illicit payments to UN diplomats – via a network of middlemen, millionaires and suspected spies,” the Herald reported.
Ho was among three figures prosecuted in the United States identified by the Herald as having links to the Chinese Communist Party.
The others were Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng and former Global Sustainability Foundation director Sheri Yan, whose Australian citizenship caught the eye of the Sydney-based paper.
All three have now been convicted in the United States, not of espionage, but of corruption: Yan pleaded guilty to bribing Ashe, the former U.N. General Assembly leader, and a different federal jury convicted Ng in July 2017.
In one wiretapped phone call played at trial, Yan urged Ho to follow through on a “major contribution” to Ashe.
“That’s not a – that’s not a problem,” Ho replied in the 2014 call. “The problem is – uh, it’s give and take.”
Evidence at Ho’s trial showed him corrupting Ashe’s successor Kutesa, whose former leadership role at the United Nations ignited outcry for his open support for Uganda’s discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Law.
‘Bribe-Takers are Brazen’
With Ho’s conviction, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York closes the book on the second leg of its anti-corruption clampdown at the United Nations.
On top of Ng and Yan’s convictions, the first batch of prosecutions also netted guilty pleas from ex-Dominican diplomat Francis Lorenzo and Global Sustainability Fund director of finance Heidi Park.
Gadio, the government’s star witness in Ho’s case, originally faced corruption charges before landing a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for his testimony. The Senegalese diplomat admits arranging Ho’s meeting with Chad’s president through his consulting company but claims to have been stunned by the bribery attempt.
Ho’s attorney Edward Kim made ridiculing Gadio’s protestations of innocence a pivot point of his closing arguments.
“This is a man who thought politics was a for-profit business,” Kim said of Gadio on Tuesday.
Kim did not respond to a request for comment on the verdict.
For former federal prosecutor Clay Porter, currently the managing director for global investigations at the consulting firm Navigant, Ho’s case shows that “bribe-takers are brazen.”
“When there’s opportunity, it doesn’t matter where you are – and nothing is sacrosanct,” he said in a phone interview.
Porter added that he would not be surprised if the public learned more about the “murky geopolitical swamp” surrounding CEFC in the future.
“Certainly, those atmospherics probably play into sentencing,” he said. “You can introduce uncharged crimes at sentencing.”
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska has scheduled Ho’s sentencing for March 14, 2019.