U.N. news outlet at center of bribery case defends its integrity

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A United Nations-focused news outlet whose U.N. accreditation has come under review after U.S. prosecutors linked it to a scheme to bribe a former General Assembly president is striking back at its critics.

John Ashe, a former United Nations General Assembly president and U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda, exits the Manhattan U.S. District Courthouse in New York, December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

South-South News, which for six years has published articles related to the U.N. and development issues, in an open letter dated Monday posted on its website defended its reputation, which it said “has been tainted by some unscrupulous acts.”

“Many media and administrative professionals have proudly worked for South-South News and can attest to the integrity of our media operation,” South-South News said.

The letter came a month after Francis Lorenzo, a suspended deputy United Nations ambassador from the Dominican Republic and South-South News’ former president, pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme.

He is one of seven people charged since October for engaging in a scheme to pay $1.3 million in bribes to John Ashe, a former U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who was U.N. General Assembly president from 2013 to 2014.

Prosecutors alleged that Lorenzo facilitated bribe payments to Ashe from Ng Lap Seng, a billionaire real estate developer in Macau who authorities say funded South-South News and who was seeking to build a U.N.-sponsored conference center in Macau.

Following Lorenzo’s plea and agreement to cooperate with prosecutors, authorities last month arrested Julia Vivi Wang, who had been the vice president of South-South News, in connection with the bribery investigation.

While South-South News itself has not been charged in the case, prosecutors have alleged that it was used as a conduit for bribes.

The United Nations has in light of the charges been reviewing South-South News’ accreditation status, a process Stephane Dujarric, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, on Monday told reporters was still ongoing.

In its open letter, South-South said it continues to operate normally and called Lorenzo’s actions “irresponsible and illegal.”

But it criticized as “unprofessional” the extent some journalists outside of its organization were “attacking everything and anyone they believe is linked to this case,” affecting the work of many “innocent people.”

South-South News said that that its employees “will defend our hard and honest work and we will defend the commitment to our goals and objectives of producing quality journalism to inform about these important issues.”

Brian Bieber, Lorenzo’s lawyer, in a statement said several comments in the letter were “inaccurate” as they related to Lorenzo, who has “accepted responsibility for his conduct.”

Representatives for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is prosecuting the case, had no immediate comment.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; editing by Andrew Hay