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Top UN official accused in bribery scheme fell to 'cancer of corruption,' Bharara says

John W. Ashe, former President of the United

John W. Ashe, former President of the United Nations General Assembly, in shown in this file photo taken in New Delhi on March 21, 2014. Credit: AFP / Getty

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan on Tuesday charged a jailed billionaire from Macau and others with bribing a top United Nations official who used the money to buy a Rolex, pay for his BMW and build a private basketball court at his Westchester County home.

Real estate tycoon Ng Lap Seng, 67, jailed for two weeks on charges of lying about $4.5 million in cash he brought into the United States, is accused of paying more than $500,000 in bribes to John Ashe, a former UN delegate from Antigua and Barbuda and president of the General Assembly.

Ashe was accused of taking the money from Ng to support a UN conference center in Macau, and also getting $800,000 from other, unnamed Chinese businessmen to support business deals in Antigua -- bribes authorities say he shared with Antigua's former prime minister.

"The cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "United in greed, the defendants allegedly formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit."

Bharara said the investigation was continuing, with the UN joining Albany in the crosshairs of his corruption probe. "We will be asking the question, 'Is bribery business as usual at the UN?' " he said.

Lawyers for Ng and Ashe said their clients were innocent.

The new charges shed light on the two-week detention of Ng. He was previously tied to a Clinton-era scandal over efforts by Chinese businessmen to funnel cash to Democrats in the 1996 election, and visited the White House at the time. But Bharara made no explicit linkage between the suspected UN bribe scheme and pending charges that Ng lied to border agents about the purpose of the $4.5 million he brought in.

Bharara acknowledged most of that money remains unaccounted for, and said that case remains under investigation.

Ashe, 61, of Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County, worked in Antigua's delegation at the UN since 1989 and served as the General Assembly's elected president in 2013-14, during the period of his alleged bribe-taking. He was charged with failing to report more than $1 million in taxes.

As part of the accused scheme, prosecutors said, he was treated to a vacation in an $850-a-night suite in New Orleans and a $30,000 private basketball court in Dobbs Ferry. He spent $59,000 on hand-tailored suits, $54,000 on two Rolexes, $40,000 on BMW payments and $69,000 to join a luxury vacation club.

The complaint left it unclear whether diplomatic immunity precluded charging him with bribe-taking as a UN official. Bharara's office declined to comment on that question.

In addition to Ng and Ashe, four others were charged with facilitating the bribery scheme. All the defendants except Ashe were detained without bail. A magistrate set a $1 million bond for Ashe, and he was not expected to make bail Tuesday night.

With John Valenti

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