NEW YORK • The US authorities have alleged that a former United Nations General Assembly president took bribes from a Chinese billionaire real estate developer from Macau as part of a wide-ranging corruption scheme.
John Ashe, 61, a diplomat from Antigua, was one of six people identified in a criminal complaint outlining the bribery scheme that involved over US$1 million (S$1.4 million) in payments from sources in China for assistance in real estate deals and other business interests.
The complaint charged Ashe, a permanent US resident, with only tax offences, which it said are not covered by any diplomatic immunity he enjoys. Ashe was charged with two counts of filing false federal tax returns.
Mr Robert Van Lierop, his lawyer, said Ashe intends to "assert the full range of immunity" to which he is entitled and would fight the charges. The five other defendants were charged with bribery and conspiracy charges.
Ashe's term as General Assembly president lasted from September 2013 to last September.
Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said there could be more charges as the authorities examine whether "corruption is business as usual at the UN".
The case is highly embarrassing to the UN, which had vowed to act with greater transparency and accountability after past scandals.
Ashe is the most senior UN diplomat to be accused of such graft.
Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said on Tuesday, through his spokesman, he was "shocked and deeply saddened" at the accusations of corruption.
The complaint alleges a broad pattern of corruption by Ashe: He spent US$59,000 on hand-tailored suits in Hong Kong in 2013 and last year, bought two Rolex watches last year for US$54,000, and paid US$40,000 to lease a new BMW X5. He also bought a membership at a South Carolina country club for US$69,000, and solicited money to construct a US$30,000 basketball court at his home in New York, according to the complaint.
The charges are a widening of the investigation of Ng Lap Seng, 68, a developer based in Macau who was arrested, along with an assistant, Jeff Yin, 29, by Customs officials in New York last month and charged with bringing US$4.5 million into the US under false pretenses by claiming it was meant for gambling or buying art, antiques or real estate.
Ashe, according to the complaint, took payments from Ng and used "his official position to obtain for Ng potentially lucrative investments in Antigua".
In one instance, US$200,000 was allegedly wired into Ashe's bank account in exchange for a foreign trip last year in his official capacity, to discuss a permanent conference centre that Ng had proposed to develop for the UN in Macau, with help from Ng's company, the Sun Kian Ip Group of China.
The proposal, first raised in 2012, had the backing of several other countries. Neither the General Assembly nor the Secretary-General's office seemed to have since taken any action on the proposal.
According to the complaint, Ashe took US$200,000 from two other defendants, Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hong Piao, in exchange for attending a conference in China in his official capacity. The duo were also charged with money laundering conspiracy.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS