UN officials ‘shocked’ by ex-Antiguan diplomat arrest

Ambassador John Ashe, of Antigua and Barbuda, the President of the General Assembly 68th session, speaks during a news conference at United Nations headquarters on Sept. 17, 2013.
Associated Press / Richard Drew, File

Top United Nations officials say they are “shocked” and “deeply troubled” to learn about the “very serious allegations” announced by United States’ federal prosecutors against Dr. John Ashe, a former president of the UN General Assembly and erstwhile Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the UN.

U.S. federal prosecutors said on Tuesday that Ashe and a Chinese billionaire real estate developer from the territory of Macau were arrested and accused of engaging in a broad corruption scheme.

Ashe, 61, was one of six people identified in a criminal complaint outlining a bribery scheme that involved more than US$1 million in payments from sources in China for assistance in real estate deals and other business interests, according to the New York Times.

Prior to his appointment as leader of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2013, Ashe was Antigua and Barbuda’s Permanent Representative to the UN.

Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that the allegations against Ashe “go to the heart of the integrity of the United Nations.”

Asked about whether the UN was involved in the United States attorney’s investigation, Dujarric told reporters that the UN was not informed of the case until it was featured in the press.

“Obviously, if we’re contacted by the relevant U.S. authorities, we will cooperate with them,” he said.

President of the General Assembly’s 70th session and former Speaker of the Danish Parliament, Mogens Lykketoft, said he, too, was shocked by the allegations.

“Coming from a country, which is consistently number one on the world transparency index and having served for 34 years in Danish politics without being rich, I certainly am shocked about it, and I think that the United Nations and its representatives should be held to the highest standards of transparency and ethics,” he told a news conference.

Lykketoft said that when he took office as the President of the UN General Assembly on September 15, he committed himself to uphold these principles during his tenure, stating that “corruption has no place at the United Nations or anywhere else.”

The case is highly embarrassing to the United Nations, which had vowed to act with greater transparency and accountability after past scandals, according to the Times.

But the paper said Ashe’s case is different from the oil-for-food program scandal in Iraq a decade ago, when an independent commission found widespread abuse by UN officials.

The complaint alleges a broad pattern of corruption by Ashe, who is accused of using the bribes to support a lavish lifestyle: spending US$59,000 on hand-tailored suits in Hong Kong in 2013 and 2014, buying two Rolex watches in 2014 for US$54,000, and later that year paying US$40,000 to lease a new BMW X5, according to the Times.

He also bought a membership at a South Carolina country club for US$69,000, and solicited money to construct a US$30,000 basketball court at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, according to the complaint.

“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,” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, told reporters.

He said that the investigation was still in its early stages, adding, “We’re looking at a lot of things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you would see other people charged.”

The charges represent a widening of the investigation of Ng Lap Seng, a developer based in Macau, who was arrested by customs officials in New York last month and charged with bringing US$4.5 million into the United States under false pretenses, the Times said.

Ashe, according to the complaint, took payments from Ng and used “his official position to obtain for Ng potentially lucrative investments in Antigua.”

In one instance, US$200,000 was wired into Ashe’s private bank account in exchange for a foreign trip in 2014 in his official capacity, to discuss a conference center that Ng wanted to develop for the United Nations, the compliant alleges.

The campaign to construct a permanent center in Macau seems to have started as early as February 2012, when Ashe, in his capacity as the ambassador to the United Nations from Antigua and Barbuda, proposed a “permanent expo and meeting centre” to be created with help from Ng’s company, the Sun Kian Ip Group of China, the Times said.

It said Ashe had asked the secretary general to circulate such a proposal to the General Assembly.

The proposal had the backing of several other countries — including Bangladesh and Kenya — and Ashe’s letter said that the “Sun Kian Ip Group of China has welcomed the initiative and will serve as the representative for the implementation of the Permanent Expo and Meeting Centre”, according to the Times.

But it said, since then, neither the General Assembly nor the secretary general’s office seem to have taken any action on the proposal.

Five other defendants, including Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative to the United Nations for the Dominican Republic, have been charged on bribery and conspiracy counts.

“Ashe made it very clear in emails and documents that he could use his access to the prime minister and other government officials to set up meetings and promote contracts with businessmen who were willing to pay,” said Diego Rodriguez, the head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

James C. Francis IV, a U.S. federal magistrate judge, set a US$1 million bond for Ashe, and said he would be subject to home detention and electronic monitoring, and must surrender his travel documents.

U.S. prosecutors had sought Ashe’s detention, saying he posed “a severe risk of flight.”

But Ashe’s lawyer, Robert F. Van Lierop, argued that the charges agaisnt his client were only allegations, which his client intended to fight.

“I expect him to be fully acquitted,” said Van Lierop after the hearing. The five other defendants were all ordered held pending further proceedings.

Meantime, the Gaston Browne administration in Antigua and Barbuda has quickly moved to distance itself from the allegations against Ashe, making it clear in a statement on Tuesday that Ashe was” Permanent Representative to the United Nations under the former government of the United Progressive Party led by former Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer.

“The present Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party government replaced Mr Ashe when it was elected to office in 2014,” it said.

The statement noted that “senior officials of the former Spencer government, including Spencer himself, are identified in the complaint.

“The complaint against Ashe, who is a resident of the United States, also includes fraudulent tax returns in the US,” said the statement, adding that “the present government of Antigua and Barbuda has implemented and upholds the highest standards of good governance and accountability.”

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