US prosecutors link Chinese officials to UN bribe case

Macau real estate developer Ng Lap Seng (second from left) exits US Federal Court in New York, on June 27, 2016.
Macau real estate developer Ng Lap Seng (second from left) exits US Federal Court in New York, on June 27, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A United States prosecutor said on Monday (June 27) that Chinese officials were involved in developing a United Nations-focused news outlet that was used to funnel bribes from a Macau billionaire to a former UN General Assembly president who died last week.

Assistant US Attorney Daniel Richenthal made that claim at a hearing in Manhattan federal court as he contended that a defense lawyer's prior work for the Chinese government may create a potential conflict in representing real-estate mogul Ng Lap Seng.

Mr Richenthal said evidence showed that Chinese officials were involved in talks with Ng about developing a UN-sponsored conference center for which Ng had bribed former General Assembly president John Ashe to gain his support.

He said Chinese officials were also involved in developing South-South News, which publishes articles related to the UN and development issues. Prosecutors said Ng funded the news outlet and used it as a conduit in the bribery scheme.

The officials' involvement, Mr Richenthal said, included discussing what agenda could be advanced at South-South News. "It's not just the conference centre," Mr Richenthal said."It's bigger."

In court, Mr Tai Park, a lawyer for Ng, called the claim"interesting", but said it did not mean another of Ng's attorneys, Mr Hugh Mo, had a conflict. The issue is expected to be discussed again at a hearing next month.

South-South News did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he did not "understand" anything about the investigation. "But we want to point out that the investigation should take the facts as its foundation and not act on hearsay," Mr Hong told reporters.

The court hearing was the first since Mr Ashe, a former UN ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served as General Assembly president from 2013 to 2014, died in an apparent weight-lifting accident last week.

He was among seven people, including Ng, charged since October in what prosecutors say is an ongoing investigation into the scheme in which Mr Ashe took US$1.3 million in bribes from Chinese businessmen.

Prosecutors said those bribes included more than US$500,000 from Ng in exchange for, among other things, Mr Ashe seeking UN support for the conference center that Ng's company would develop.

They said the bribes included a US$2,500-per-month job at South-South News for Mr Ashe's wife.

That job was arranged by Francis Lorenzo, a suspended deputy UN ambassador from the Dominican Republic and South-South News' former president who prosecutors say acted as an intermediary. Lorenzo pleaded guilty in April.

In light of the allegations, the United Nations has been reviewing the accreditation status of South-South News, which has denied knowledge of Lorenzo's activities.