Rubber Hits the Road as U.N. Bribery Case Wraps

MANHATTAN (CN) — A Chinese real estate mogul hoped to create a diplomatic hub that would have turned Macau into Asia’s answer to Geneva, but after a month-long trial, a U.S. prosecutor told a jury that the billionaire paved the road to his vision with corruption.

“Brick by brick, bribe by bribe, the defendant built a path that he thought would bring him fame and fortune,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg told a jury on Tuesday.

It is undisputed that Ng Lap Seng, a billionaire, had a vast fortune well before the allegations in his indictment.

His portfolio included 130 affiliated companies before he linked up with powerful diplomats on a vision to create a U.N. conference center for developing nations to meet every year in Macau.

The building would host the annual South-South Expo, where countries that identify as a global south — the preferred nomenclature for what was once called third-world nations — would discuss topics of shared concerned concern like climate change, water access and food security.

Although U.S. prosecutors cast the project as a crooked deal, Ng’s attorney Tai Park, a partner at the Wall Street firm Park Jensen Bennett, described the project as a typical partnership between the public and private sectors encouraged by the United Nations.

“If you’re going 70 mph on a highway, and there’s no speed limit, you don’t commit a crime by going 70 mph,” Park said, extending the government’s highway metaphor.

In closing arguments that extended throughout the day, Ng’s prosecutors and defense attorney returned to the same themes they developed when trial began in late June.

Prosecutors argued that Ng paid millions to two ambassadors: Francis Lorenzo, from the Dominican Republic, and the late John Ashe, an Antiguan who once served as president of the U.N. General Assembly.

Ashe, who died in a weightlifting accident before trial, would never take the stand, but Lorenzo became the key government witness in marathon testimony that stretched longer than a week.

Six of those days were spent on tense cross-examination by Park, who compared Lorenzo to a “wound-up puppet” and a “cornered rat” on Tuesday.

“He is the very embodiment of reasonable doubt, ladies and gentlemen,” the attorney said, referring to Lorenzo. “He can’t tell the truth.”

The former deputy permanent representative for the United Nations to the Dominican Republic, Lorenzo testified that Ng paid him $25,000 per month — later upped to $60,000 per month — to serve as president of South-South News, a digital news platform for the developing world.

Evidence showed that Ng wired Lorenzo’s payments to Terra Trading, a company owned by Lorenzo’s brother.

Ng also paid Ashe’s wife Anilla Cherian to act as the network consultant, which prosecutors called a “no-show” job.

Although Cherian is a doctorate-holding climate change expert, evidence showed that an expense report sent to Ng simply listed her “wife.”

Lorenzo now describes the money that he received as bribes intended to push him to obtain the U.N. permissions necessary for Ng’s ultimate goal: the Macau conference center.

Echenberg told the jury that this was because Ng wanted to draw diplomats, business people, and wealthy celebrities to the skyscrapers, marina and heliport that he hoped to build around it.

“The defendant was on the road to building his giant real estate complex, and the dollar signs must have been flashing in his eyes,” she said.

Park argued that Ng would have lost money off the venture, which he depicted as charitable giving to address developing nations’ concerns with soft media power and hard real estate.

Ng did this openly and with a “clean conscience,” Park added, noting that his client sent the wire transfers to Lorenzo from his business account under his personal order.

“If you’re going to do a bribery scheme, just pull out the cash and make sure it’s not traceable to you,” Park said.

Lorenzo pleaded guilty last year to tax fraud for his use of Terra Trading.

Spending the bulk of his arguments attacking Lorenzo’s credibility, Park has argued that the diplomat’s tax evasion put his brother and sister at risk of prosecution and gave him a motive to avoid a heavy sentence at Ng’s expense.

As trial ended on Tuesday, Park had not yet finished dissecting the government’s arguments. He will continue his summations on Wednesday, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richenthal will deliver rebuttal arguments before the case goes to the jury.

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