John Ashe, the former president of the United Nations General Assembly, was hit with federal charges on Tuesday for his alleged role in a $1.3 million bribery scheme that prosecutors say involves Chinese businessmen, a multi-billion dollar conference center in Macau, and dirty money being spent on Rolex watches, custom suits, and a private basketball court at Ashe's New York home.
Prosecutors from the US Attorney's Office in New York City announced the case on Tuesday, explaining that a total of five individuals were charged with bribery-related counts, while Ashe was charged with tax fraud for not paying taxes on bribes he accepted in 2013 and 2014.
Ashe, 61, who served as president of the General Assembly from September 2013 to September 2014 and also as the UN Ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda, was arrested in Dobbs Ferry, New York, on two counts of false and fraudulent US individual income tax returns, which each carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Three others, Deputy UN Ambassador for the Dominican Republic Francis Lorenzo, Ng Lap Seng, and Jeff C. Yin face up to 15 years in prison for bribery conspiracy and bribery, while two of the individuals involved, Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hon Piao, could be sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to the charging documents, Ashe solicited and accepted bribes facilitated by business people in China to represent their interests at the UN and in Antigua, including a $500,000 bribe in exchange for submitting a document to the UN Secretary General claiming there was a need to build a multi-billion dollar conference center in Macau, the small peninsula in mainland China known for its lavish casinos.
Ashe allegedly used the bribe money to pay for family vacations, a private basketball at his house in Dobbs Ferry, Rolex watches, and bespoke custom suits, and to cover his mortgage and BMW lease payments. The US Attorney's office claims Ashe failed to report more than $1.2 million of income in 2013 and 2014.
The bribery scheme allegedly began around 2011. At that time, prosecutors say Lorenzo convinced Ashe to come with him to China to meet with Seng about the Macau conference center, and Ashe agreed in exchange for a first-class family trip to New Orleans. The arrangement led to additional bribes, they say, including a $2,500 monthly salary for Ashe's wife, for a role described as a "climate change consultant."
Before the support for the Macau center was finalized, Ashe purportedly told Lorenzo he would need to "see the funds — funds which are NOT for my personal use but to help run the [President of the General Assembly] office. Period." He requested $100,000 to $200,000.
"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," US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. The prosecutor said Ashe "sold himself and the global institution he led," and "formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit."
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the UN only learned of the charges on Tuesday morning. "Of course, the Secretary-General was shocked and deeply troubled to learn this morning of the allegations against John Ashe, the former President of the General Assembly, which go to the heart of the integrity of the United Nations," Dujarric said in a statement to VICE News.
Seng and Yin were arrested on September 19 for making false statements to customs agents about the $4.5 million cash they had brought into the US from China. "It is our position that Mr. Seng committed no crime," said Seng's attorney Alex Spiro.
Ashe and the others were scheduled to appear in front of a judge on Tuesday.
"We will continue to do everything we can to root out public corruption — whether we find it in a city council, in Albany, or as here, in the United Nations," Bharara said.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen