NEW YORK — The U.S. has charged a former United Nations official with tax fraud in a scheme that spanned several countries and featured bribes in the forms of cash, a luxury trip to New Orleans, and a basketball court installed inside his home.
At the heart of the criminal complaint is a man named John Ashe, a diplomat from the tiny Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Ashe — who was arrested in New York on Monday morning — was the Antiguan ambassador to the U.N. and elected President of the United Nations General Assembly for the session that began in September 2013. The role is largely ceremonial, but before and during his one year-term, the United States Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York alleges, Ashe accepted more than a million dollars in cash as well as other forms of bribes in a pair of schemes to purchase influence.
The first scheme allegedly flowed through Francis Lorenzo, the Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. for the Dominican Republic. Lorenzo has since 2010 also been the "Honorary President" of a New York-based NGO, established by a Chinese businessman and billionaire named David Ng. (The Dominican Mission to the U.N. did not immediately return a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.)
Lorenzo allegedly arranged for Ashe in 2011 to meet with Ng in Macau, China. In exchange for a family trip to New Orleans, including a luxury suite and first-class airline tickets, and a basketball court in being installed in his home, Ashe would meet with the then-Prime Minister of Antigua to discuss Ng building properties on the island. Ashe also arranged for his wife to be placed on his NGO payroll to the tune of $2,500 per month, according to the complaint.
Ng also wanted to construct a facility in Macau, called the U.N. Macau Conference Center, the complaint continued. Lorenzo allegedly arranged for Ashe to revise a U.N. document that specifically named Ng's company — by name — as the developer of the proposed center. After his election as President of the UNGA, Ashe and other U.N. officials flew out to Macau to meet with Ng — a meeting that the complaint said Ng paid $200,000 to arrange.
Ng was arrested in late September for bringing $4.5 million into the U.S. under suspicious circumstances — the charges are separate from those involving Ashe. He had previously been implicated in a Democratic fundraising scandal in the 1990s and visited the Clinton White House on multiple occasions.
Though Ashe insisted that the money from Ng would help run his office, the complaint alleges that the funds were transferred into Ashe's personal account. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, at a press conference on Monday, detailed that the money Ashe received was spent on such goods as "$59,000 on a single order of custom tailored suits; $54,000 for a pair of Rolex watches; and $40,000 to lease a new BMW."
In the other alleged scheme, two of the others named in the complaint — Sheri Yan and Heidi Park — connected Ashe with other Chinese businessmen. Other pay-for-play moments over the past years included a $300,000 from a Chinese media executive to press for access in Antigua — $100,000 of which allegedly went straight to the then-Prime Minister.
Yan, who is the Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of an NGO called the Global Sustainability Foundation (GSF), also named Ashe as the "honorary chairman" of the Foundation. The foundation — which is referred to in the complaint only as "NGO-2" — allegedly began paying Ashe $20,000 every month for his role. The GSF did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Two other Chinese businessmen paid Ashe — after arrangements by Yan and Park — $100,000 and $200,000 in exchange for promoting their companies. The former wanted to install a "national internet security system" in Antigua; the latter wanted to build a permanent convention center for the U.N. to discuss climate change and sustainability. On all of these payments, Ashe — who is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. — allegedly paid no taxes, despite paying out the bribes to himself in the form of monthly $25,000 checks labeled "salary."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was "shocked and deeply troubled to learn of the allegations" against Ashe, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said at his daily press briefing, which Ban said "go to the heart of the integrity of the United Nations."
Ng, Park, and Yan were all charged alongside Ashe and Lorenzo, as was Ng's assistant Jeff Yin. There is no allegation that the Chinese government is involved thus far in the investigation, Bharara said standing alongside representatives from the FBI and the IRS, which is still ongoing.
"This is early in the investigation, we're still at the complaint stage," Bharara stressed. "There's a lot of investigating that continues to have to be done and a lot of interviews that still need to be done. So we don't know yet — it's possible we've only scratched the surface on what kinds of official acts have taken place."