MANHATTAN (CN) – Recapping testimony about gift boxes stuffed with $2 million in cash, a federal prosecutor told jurors at closing arguments Tuesday that a Hong Kong businessman’s globe-hopping corruption scheme has the trappings of a Hollywood thriller.
“That is a quintessential bribe,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Samuel Zolkind said during closing arguments this morning. “It’s a classic – like something out of a movie.”
In the starring role of this Manhattan trial is tycoon Chi Ping Patrick Ho, the leader of a think tank tied to CEFC China Energy who sought to court the African energy market.
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. Federal prosecutors claim that Ho exploited the entity for more sinister purposes like money laundering, arms trafficking and bribing the presidents of Chad and Uganda. Both countries rank consistently toward the bottom of Transparency International’s anti-corruption index.
“He didn’t want to start that negotiation on an even playing field,” prosecutor Zolkind said. “He wanted an advantage. So, he decided to cheat.”
On the road to closing arguments this morning, Senegalese diplomat Cheikh Gadio spent three days on the witness stand where he recounted meetings with Ho at the United Nations and the apartment of CEFC’s owner at Trump World Tower. Gadio said that Ho’s delegation eventually traveled to Chad in a private jet with several gift boxes packed with $2 million in U.S. dollars to Chad’s President Idriss Deby.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not how legitimate business is done,” Zolkind said.
Deby, a dictator who has ruled Chad since 1990, claims to have rejected the offer. Gadio said that Deby insisted that the CEFC delegation legitimize the transaction with a letter that would put the money to public use.
“Dr. Ho said, ‘Mr. President, I’m very impressed by your reaction and your attitude, your rejection of the gift,” Gadio testified.
Ho’s attorney Edward Kim, a founding partner of the Manhattan-based firm Krieger Kim & Lewin LLP, spent much of his summations attacking Gadio’s credibility.
“Gadio’s story was dramatic. I’ll give him that,” Kim said. “But Gadio’s story was a lie.”
It is undisputed that the Chad deal ultimately fizzled out, though evidence showed that Ho pursued a possible agreement long after the meeting with Deby.
In March 2015, Ho sent Gadio a text offering $200 million in U.S. dollars up front for 10 percent rights – “plus some arms,” which testimony showed was to be used against the militant group Boko Haram.
Prosecutors claim that CEFC’s negotiations went south after the attempted bribe, but Ho’s attorney insisted that its ultimately failure vindicated his client.
“Don’t let them pause this movie on the day the payment is made,” Kim said.
‘The Problem Is – Uh, It’s Give and Take’
Kim’s client Ho is charged with eight counts of money laundering and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and several of the counts do not require prosecutors to prove that the bribes were completed or resulted in a benefit.
Roughly half of the charges related to Ho’s pursuit of an oil deal in Uganda, evidence of which implicated two successive U.N. General Assembly presidents: John Ashe and Sam Kutesa.
Ashe, a diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda, was indicted before he died in a 2016 weightlifting accident, but his co-conspirator Sheri Yan pleaded guilty two years ago to having bribed him.
The jury heard a wiretapped call between Yan and Ho appearing to discuss a “major contribution” to Ashe.
“That’s not a – that’s not a problem,” Ho told Yan in the 2014 call. “The problem is – uh, it’s give and take.”
“Yes, give and take,” Yan agreed. “That’s – of course. This is the – this is business, right?”
“Yeah, right,” Ho responded.
For Zolkind,“give and take” sounds like “this for that,” the English translation of the Latin term for bribery: quid pro quo.
Ho displayed a similar transactional attitude with the family of Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa, a supporter of his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. Originally set to punish LGBT Ugandans with the death penalty, this legislation was known as the “Kill the Gays” bill until the statute was changed to life imprisonment.
Various emails implicate Kutesa and his wife in corruption, though neither are publicly charged.
In an email to wife Edith Kutesa, Ho offered the donation to the foreign minister’s foundation subject to “mutual agreement and commitments.”
Zolkind noted that this is not the language of philanthropy.
“Charitable donations are not about mutual commitments,” he said.
Zolkind made clear that the Ugandan political family had been in on the corrupt arrangement.
“The Kutesas understood the winds and the nods, and they were playing along,” he said.
After their Food Security and Sustainable Energy Foundation received a $500,000 wire transfer, Ho’s delegation at CEFC received a VIP invitation to the fifth inaugural ceremony of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In photos entered into evidence, Ho can be seen smiling broadly at the event.
“What can come out of this occasion can only be limited by what can be imagined,” Edith Kutesa told Ho before the ceremony.
Evidence showed that the Kutesas offered an array of enticements for CEFC in the energy, infrastructure, finance, agricultural and tourism industries. Uganda offered help in the Chinese energy company purchasing local banks and develop in a man-made island in Lake Albert, the 27th largest lake in Africa.
Prosecutors said that Ho planned to bring another $500,000 in cash to Uganda under the guise of supporting the campaign fund for Museveni, who had just been re-elected.
In a report marked “highly confidential,” Ho told CEFC’s chairman: “It’s suggested that it would be best to give it to the President’s representative directly in the form of cash.”
A day before traveling Uganda’s capital of Kampala, Ho informed his hosts in an email that CEFC’s delegation was “preparing to bring with us some ‘nice’ gifts to your President and Minister Kutesa.”
In October 2016, some five months after the trip to Uganda, Edith Kutesa sent an email with an attached letter backdated to June, which thanked CEFC for the supposed donation.
“It was just a charade,” Zolkind said of the letter. “Just an after-the-fact effort to try to cover it up.”
‘The Worst Bribers in the World’
Like the Chad deal, the Uganda negotiations ultimately fell apart soon after CEFC’s huddle with the president, a fact about which Ho’s attorney eagerly reminded the jury.
“This isn’t this for that,” Kim told the panel. “It’s this for nothing.”
Disputing the government’s allegations that CEFC paid off Museveni and the Kutesas, Kim said that there was only one $500,000 to the foreign minister’s foundation – and it got the energy giant nothing. Bank records from HSBC’s Hong Kong branch showed only one transfer of that amount, he added.
“They must be the worst bribers in the world,” Kim quipped sarcastically. “Not only that, they must have been the nicest bribers in the world.”
Kim noted that the emails introduced into evidence do not show Ho badgering his Chadian and Ugandan hosts on a return on any corrupt investments.
“We beg you to avoid the temptation to make snap judgments,” he said.
During his rebuttal summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richenthal noted that it is undisputed that CEFC paid Chadian and Ugandan officials, and he was indignant by the argument that these payments were legitimate.
“There’s only one way that makes any damn sense: They’re bribes,” he huffed.
That would be true, Richenthal added, whether CEFC made one or two payments to Ugandan officials.
“Sam Kutesa wanted to get paid. CEFC wanted business,” Richenthal said, clapping his hands for emphasis. “Deal.”
Richtenthal’s closing pitch was filled with theatrical flourishes like these. Noting that most of the facts in the case are undisputed, the prosecutor told the jury that they need to delve into Ho’s mind.
“You need to look into his head,” Richenthal said, pointing dramatically to Ho, who was seated at the defense table.
“That doesn’t mean you need an MRI machine into his brain,” he added.
Despite vouching for Gadio’s credibility, Richenthal said that the witness did not need to be believed for Ho to be found guilty. Gadio received a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for his testimony, but Richenthal said the jury could disagree with that decision and find in the government’s favor.
“You are entitled to your view,” he said.
Telling the jurors the case was neither close nor complicated, Richenthal left the panel with a picture of Ho looking at a map of Ugandan oil fields.
“That is what bribery looks like: an international businessman looking at oil fields that he bought his way into,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush, delivered jury instructions before sending the panel to deliberations. The jurors will return on Wednesday, despite the national day of mourning for the elder Bush, whom Preska called a “gracious and generous and wonderful man.”