NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. authorities charged a former president of the United Nations General Assembly, a billionaire Macau real estate developer and four others on Tuesday for engaging in a wide-ranging corruption scheme.
John Ashe, a former U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who was general assembly president from 2013 to 2014, was accused in a complaint filed in federal court in New York of taking more than $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese businessmen, including developer Ng Lap Seng.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who announced the arrests of Ashe and the other defendants, said the investigation could result in more charges as authorities examine whether "corruption is business as usual at the United Nations."
"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.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "shocked and deeply troubled" by the allegations, said his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric. The U.N. had not previously been informed of the probe, Dujarric said, but would cooperate if contacted.
The case followed the Sept. 19 arrest of Ng, 68, and an assistant, Jeff Yin, 29, for falsely claiming that $4.5 million they brought into the United States from China from 2013 to 2015 was meant for gambling or buying art, antiques or real estate.
Both men are charged in the latest case. Bharara said authorities continue to examine funds connected to Ng, who prosecutors say has a $1.8 billion fortune, much of which he earned on developments in Macau.
According to the complaint, Ng, through intermediaries, paid Ashe more than $500,000 to submit a document telling the U.N. secretary general that a yet-to-be built multibillion-dollar U.N.-sponsored conference center in Macau was needed.
The intermediaries included Francis Lorenzo, 48, a deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic who prosecutors said Ng paid $20,000 monthly as "honorary president" of one of his organizations, South-South News.
The other was Yin, who authorities said after his arrest disclosed that Ng viewed the conference center as his "legacy" and made payments to get action on it.
Ashe, 61, also received more than $800,000 from Chinese businessmen to support their interests within the U.N. and Antigua, and kicked some of the money to Antigua's then-prime minister, who was not named, the complaint said.
Prosecutors said those bribes were arranged through Sheri Yan, chief executive officer of a New York-based organization, and Heidi Park, its finance director, who were also arrested.
The organization was unnamed, but the Global Sustainability Foundation website lists Yan and Park as holding those positions.
The foundation did not respond to requests for comment. Baldwin Spencer, who held the prime minister post at the time, could not be reached for comment.
The complaint said Ashe solicited bribes in various forms, including payments to cover a New Orleans family vacation and construction for a $30,000 basketball court at his house in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
From 2012 to 2014, more than $3 million from foreign governments and individuals was deposited in bank accounts controlled by Ashe, who spent the money on his mortgage, BMW lease payments and Rolex watches, prosecutors said.
The complaint only charged Ashe with tax offenses, which it said are not covered by any diplomatic immunity he enjoys. The U.N. General Assembly presidency is a ceremonial, one-year post paid for by the home country.
At a hearing late Tuesday, a federal judge set Ashe's bail at $1 million on condition be placed under house arrest, despite concerns by prosecutors that he posed a flight risk.
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.
Brian Bieber, Lorenzo's lawyer, said his client "acted in good faith at all times and believed in the integrity of what he was told by those involved." Ng's lawyer, Alex Spiro, said his client committed no crime.
Lawyers for Yin, Yan and Park declined comment.
Ng, also known as David Ng, heads Macau-based Sun Kian Ip Group, whose foundation arm lists several ambassadors to the U.N., including Ashe and Lorenzo, as holding leadership positions.
In China, Ng sits on several government committees and belongs to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the government.
Ng's name previously surfaced in U.S. investigations into how foreign money might have been funneled into the Democratic National Committee before the 1996 elections, when it was working to re-elect President Bill Clinton.
Ng, who was never charged, stopped coming to the United States from 1996 to 2000 amid the probe, prosecutors have said.
More recently, in 2014, Ng was subpoenaed in a U.S. foreign bribery investigation, a source has said, after his name surfaced in litigation involving billionaire Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands Corp (LVS.N).
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn also have brought sealed charges against another individual linked to Ng, Yin's lawyer Sabrina Shroff said at a Sept. 29 hearing. The status of any Brooklyn-based investigation was unclear on Tuesday.
Reporting by Nate Raymond and Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Jon Stempel, Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau in New York and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Lisa Shumaker