A former president of the United Nations General Assembly turned the world body into a "platform for profit" by accepting over $1 million in bribes and a trip to New Orleans from a billionaire Chinese real estate mogul and other business people to pave the way for lucrative investments, a prosecutor charged Tuesday.
John Ashe, a former United Nations ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served in the largely ceremonial post as head of the 193-nation assembly from September 2013 to September 2014, faces tax fraud charges in what authorities call a conspiracy with five others, including Francis Lorenzo, a deputy UN ambassador from the Dominican Republic who lives in the Bronx.
US Attorney Preet Bharara repeatedly noted that it was early in the investigation and told reporters that as it proceeds: "We will be asking: Is bribery business as usual at the UN?"
He added: "I wouldn't be surprised if we see other people charged."
The prosecutor said Ashe "converted the United Nations into a platform for profit" when bribery opportunities were dangled before him by Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng, 67, and others.
"We obviously just learned of the very serious allegations this morning," Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told reporters. Dujarric said Ban was "shocked and deeply troubled" by the allegations that "go to the heart and integrity of the UN."
Still, he challenged Bharara's claims, saying, "Corruption is not business as usual at the UN." He said the UN's legal department and senior officials were not informed of the probe in advance.
Dujarric noted that the president of the General Assembly "does not report to the secretary-general and is completely independent in functions."
Those charged in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court included Seng, who was arrested two weeks ago along with his chief assistant, Jeff C. Yin, 29, a US citizen whose bail was revoked last week over allegations he lied to investigators after his arrest.
Lawyers for Ng, Yin and Lorenzo, 48, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It was not immediately clear who would represent Ashe at an initial court appearance Tuesday. A message for comment left at Lorenzo's mission was also not immediately returned.
Diego Rodriguez, head of the FBI's New York office, said the charges should be a warning "to those who come to the United States from other countries with corruption plans or bags full of cash."
According to court papers, the 61-year-old Ashe used his UN positions to support a multibillion-dollar UN-sponsored conference center that Ng hoped to build as his legacy in Macau, where he lived, and to help Ng meet government officials from Antigua. Prosecutors said the conference center would function as a sort of satellite operation for the world body.
Dujarric said the UN had not found any documentation of the claims involving Macau.
The scheme unfolded over the course of nearly three years, from 2011 through 2014, prosecutors said.
Ng and his assistant had been held by federal authorities on charges they lied about plans for $4.5 million in cash brought into the US over several years aboard private jets.
Prosecutors say some bribe money funded first-class airfare for Ashe, his wife and two children to New Orleans, where they stayed in an $850-a-night hotel room.
Other money, they said, was used to lease a luxury car, pay his home mortgage, buy Rolex watches and custom suits, and construct a $30,000 basketball court at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where he was arrested Tuesday. He opened two bank accounts to receive the funds and then underreported his income by more than $1.2 million, officials said.
No one answered a phone call to the mission for Antigua; Ashe is no longer listed in the UN directory. A message left with a representative for the General Assembly wasn't immediately returned.
Prosecutors said two other arrested individuals were involved with Ng. They were identified as Sheri Yan, 57, and Heidi Park, 52, both naturalized US citizens who reside in China and helped facilitate the scheme, prosecutors said. It wasn't clear who was representing them.