HONG KONG -- High-level support had been building in the United Nations for a multi-billion dollar Macau convention center project at the heart of a U.S. corruption investigation in the months before the case came to light.
A meeting in Macau in late August of some 200 delegates from 50 countries, including the prime minister of Dominica and several U.N. ambassadors, ended with an endorsement of the "creation of a permanent South-South Expo [Center] in Macau," according to the website of the U.N. Office for South-South Cooperation, which organized the event.
"This Expo Center will give us a home to exhibit and share our successful South-South development solutions," said Abulkalam Abdul Momen, Bangladesh's U.N. ambassador and president of the High-level Committee on South-South Cooperation, in a press release.
The event was sponsored by the Sun Kian Ip Group Foundation, which according to the complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday, helped funnel $500,000 to John Ashe, another U.N. official, to secure his backing for the Sun Kian Ip Group to build the proposed expo center and for acquisitions in the Caribbean island nation of Antigua. Sun Kian Ip Group is the foundation's corporate affiliate.
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the filings of bribery charges Tuesday against David Ng Lap-seng, the head of Sun Kian Ip Group, and Ashe, who was U.N. ambassador for Antigua and, for a year's term through September 2014, president of the U.N. General Assembly.
"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. "As alleged, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe... sold himself and the global institution he led. United in greed, the defendants convert the U.N. into a platform for profit."
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said Tuesday that Ban was "shocked and deeply troubled" over the allegations against Ashe "which go to the heart of the integrity of the U.N." He said that Ban did not recall ever having discussed the Macau project with Ashe.
Ashe is the most senior official from the U.N. to face such charges. The case is sensitive to the U.N., which has pledged to improve transparency and combat corruption practices after previous scandals.
According to the prosecutor's complaint, Ng and Ashe were introduced in 2011 by Francis Lorenzo, deputy ambassador to the U.N. for the Dominican Republic and, since around 2009, the honorary president of South-South News, for which he receives annual payments of more than $240,000. The complaint said that Ng has provided more than $12 million to South-South News, a media service.
Lorenzo, who also faces charges in the bribery case, is said to have invited Ashe to Macau in 2011 to meet Ng, getting his agreement in exchange for a luxury family vacation to New Orleans.
After first providing help to Ng in Antigua, which included setting up a meeting in New York with the country's prime minister in 2011, Ashe allegedly submitted a report drafted by Lorenzo to Secretary-General Ban the next year advocating for the Macau conference center, purportedly with the backing of the Antiguan prime minister. In 2013, Ashe issued a revised report specifically promoting Sun Kian Ip as developer of the project. Lorenzo in 2014 arranged for Ashe to come with other U.N. officials back to Macau to discuss the project with Ng, allegedly in exchange for a $200,000 payment.
The Sun Kian Ip Group in 2013 joined a U.N. initiative called Global Compact that encourages businesses to adopt sustainable principles with respect to human rights, labor and avoiding corruption. The U.N.'s Dujarric said Tuesday that he believed the company's membership would be put under review, but another spokeswoman later told the Nikkei Asian Review that the company had been ejected in April "for failure to meet the annual reporting requirement for two consecutive years."
Sun Kian Ip foundation's website says the company "recognizes that governments cannot do it alone" and says the Macau expo center would "play an important role not only in accelerating the development of technologies, including through South-South and triangular cooperation, but also in harnessing the potential of ICT for sustainable economic growth, investment, capacity building and job creation in countries of the Global South."
Prosecutors allege that various other Chinese businessmen, including an unnamed media executive and a "security technology executive", paid Ashe more than $800,000 to advance their interests at the U.N. and in Antigua and that he shared some of the money with the country's then prime minister.
A U.S. Senate committee concluded in 1998 that Ng had indirectly made contributions of at least $220,000 to the U.S. Democratic National Committee between 1994 and 1996, while Bill Clinton was president. Ng also visited the White House and posed with Clinton. An ethnic Chinese businessman who channeled the payments from Ng was later convicted of violating U.S. campaign finance laws.
The Ashe case was brought to light following the arrest of Ng in New York on Sept. 19, just before Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off his state visit to the U.S. Ng had arrived a few days earlier in Anchorage, Alaska by private plane carrying $500,000 in cash. On a July trip, he had brought in $900,000 in cash and met with Lorenzo in New York, according to the bribery complaint.
Ng and assistant Jeff C. Yin were arrested on charges of allegedly misleading U.S. customs officials about the purposes for which they had brought in more than $4.5 million in cash since 2013. The bribery complaint said that Yin confirmed to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations agents after his arrest that Ng had made payments to try to advance U.N. action on the Macau conference center.
Ng is politically well-connected in Macau and southern China. A laudatory 1997 article in China Daily said he started his business in Macau in the late 1970s with 100 patacas ($12.5). He serves on Macau's economic development advisory committee and has represented Macau in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a top-level national advisory body.
Sun Kian Ip's Macau investments include luxury apartment development Windsor Arch. Ng has held a 12.5% stake in Macau's Hotel Fortuna, home to a casino.
Las Vegas Sands, the U.S. casino operator that is Macau's biggest foreign investor, previously considered a business relationship with Ng, according to a 2010 report to the company from Steve Vickers, a risk consultant and former Hong Kong police official. The confidential report was published online Sept. 29 by the Investigative Reporting Program of the University of California Berkeley.
The report cites a Macau gaming official as connecting Ng to the Wo On Lok triad, a criminal organization. The official and a "law enforcement source" connected Ng to the control of prostitution rackets in the city.
Asked while testifying in a court case in Nevada in May about Ng, Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas Sands' chairman and chief executive and a top U.S. Republican Party donor, said he had heard of him but said he had no dealings with him. Asked then about Vickers' report, Adelson said: "There's a lot of Ngs in Macau. It's not as common as Kim or Park in Korea, but there's a lot of Ngs."