Ex-UN General Assembly chief arrested over $1.3mn bribery scheme

© Mike Segar
A former UN General Assembly president has been charged in a $1.3 million bribery scheme involving a Chinese millionaire and four others. A total of six top-ranked figures have been arrested as part of a broader corruption probe into the UN by the FBI.

John Ashe, a former ambassador to the UN for Antigua and Barbuda who presided over the 68th General Assembly in 2013, was arrested in Dobbs Ferry, New York on Tuesday.

According to an FBI statement, Ashe has been charged “with tax fraud for failure to report or pay income taxes on the over $1 million he received in bribes in 2013 and 2014.”

“As alleged, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the UN General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led,” US Attorney Preet Bharara said.

Along with Ashe, the FBI has arrested Deputy UN Ambassador for the Dominican Republic Francis Lorenzo, and the CEO and finance director of a New York-based NGO: Shiwei Yan (aka Sheri Yan) and Heidi Hong Piao (Heidi Park).

“If proven, today’s charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well,” Bharara said.

Ashe’s arrest comes more than two weeks after the FBI arrested Macau real-estate mogul Ng Lap Seng and his assistant Jeff C. Yin on September 19. The two have now also been charged as a part of the alleged bribery scheme. On the day of their arrests, Ng and Yin were charged with lying to Customs and Border Protection officials about the “true purpose” of the approximately $4.5 million in cash that they had brought from China to the US since 2013.

Federal investigators suspect Ashe in “soliciting and accepting” more than $1 million in bribes from “sources in China” who sought to advance their interests in the UN.

It is believed that the alleged wide-ranging scheme started “in or about the spring of 2011.”

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According to the complaint, Ashe accepted over $500,000 in bribes from Ng, who was interested in pushing through his multibillion-dollar “UN Macau Conference Center.” According to the investigation, Ashe agreed to meet Ng in Macau in the spring of 2011 “in exchange for Lorenzo buying Ashe and his family a trip to New Orleans, including first-class airline tickets and a luxury hotel suite.”

In addition to his family vacation, Ashe allegedly requested that Lorenzo pay for “a private basketball court” at his house in Westchester County, while his wife also received monthly payments of $2,500 for being a “climate change consultant” at an NGO.

John Ashe, a former ambassador to the UN for Antigua and Barbuda. © Andrew Burton

The former UNGA president also received over $800,000 in bribes from various Chinese businessmen arranged through Yan and Piao, whose interests Ashe advocated in the UN.

According to the FBI probe, Ashe transferred the bribe money to his personal bank accounts primarily through checks he wrote to himself for a purported “salary.” Ashe used the money for such things “as paying the mortgage on his house in Dobbs Ferry, making his BMW lease payments, and buying luxury items such as Rolex watches and custom suits” to support his opulent life.

“During these years, Ashe was also paid approximately $200,000 annually in ‘consulting’ income from Lorenzo, Ng, Piao and Yan,” the FBI said. 

On Tuesday, Lorenzo was accused of acting as an agent for Ng who helped facilitate the bribes to Ashe. He has been charged with conspiracy and bribery along with four Chinese businesspeople.

Lorenzo’s defense, however, insists that “ambassador Lorenzo at all times acted in good faith.”

“Ambassador Lorenzo trusted the people he surrounded himself with and relied on their integrity in all of his dealings,” attorney Brian Bieber said.

US investigators are familiar with Ng’s name, which surfaced during a probe into how foreign money might have been brought into the Democratic National Committee before the 1996 elections, when it was working to re-elect President Bill Clinton, Reuters reported.

Ng was never charged, but he reportedly stopped coming to the United States while the probe was ongoing from 1996 to 2000.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “shocked and deeply troubled” by the allegations that “go to the heart and integrity of the UN,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.