MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal judge refused to hand a diplomat the "get out of jail free card" of immunity for his alleged role in a $1.3 million bribery scheme involving a Chinese billionaire and former U.N. president.
Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative for the United Nations to the Dominican Republic, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted in connection with a massive corruption probe that led to charges against him and five others.
At the center of the allegations are Chinese real estate mogul Ng Lap Seng and fellow diplomat John Ashe, a 61-year-old who had served as president of the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly.
Lorenzo, Ashe, Ng, and Ng's assistant John Yin have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Sheri Yan and Heidi Park, the former CEO and director of finance of the Global Sustainability Foundation, respectively, pleaded guilty within a week of each other in January.
Lorenzo, who claims dual citizenship in the United States and the Domenican Republic, asserted that his status entitles him to diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick rejected that position in a scathing 11-page opinion on Thursday.
"Lorenzo does not identify, and I have not found, any case in which a United States citizen who is also a citizen of another country has been granted diplomatic immunity," he noted.
At a recent hearing, Broderick appeared to be troubled about the implications of keeping a dual-citizen diplomat immune from prosecution as a foreigner, but protected from deportation as a citizen.
"Lorenzo's interpretation would effectively mean that he could commit any crime as a citizen of the United States but would be beyond the jurisdiction of the government for criminal prosecution," Broderick emphasized in his ruling. "At the same time, Lorenzo would not be subject to expulsion from the United States, as a non-national diplomat with diplomatic immunity would upon being accused of criminal acts. This interpretation would also cede to the Dominican Republic the right to determine whether or not a United States citizen could face criminal prosecution. In other words, Lorenzo is advocating that diplomats who have dual citizenship would have a 'get out of jail free card' that could only be revoked by the diplomat's native country. This result is also antithetical to the purpose that diplomatic immunity 'is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing states.'"
In a phone interview, Lorenzo's attorney Brian Bieber said that his client will seek another form of immunity that sidesteps this concern.
"We are in the process of analyzing the 1.3 million pages of discovery provided by the government and are hopeful, as we suspect, that Ambassador Lorenzo's conduct falls into the purview of 'official acts,' thus entitling us to dismissal on the grounds of 'official acts' immunity," he said.
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