Billionaire Chinese developer Ng Lap Seng’s lawyer portrayed him as a misunderstood and betrayed “philanthropist” as his trial for allegedly bribing two United Nations ambassadors to support a conference center began Thursday in Manhattan federal court.
“Mr. Ng wanted to do good,” defense attorney Tai Park told jurors. “There was no corrupt intent in his heart or in his mind.”
Ng, 69, a real estate and casino mogul from Macau with links to the Chinese government, is charged with paying more $500,000 in bribes to Dominican diplomat Francis Lorenzo and John Ashe, the ambassador from Antigua who served as UN Assembly President.
He paid them off to support an ambitious conference center in Macau to be used by developing countries that he would build at no cost on a man-made island, the government said, anchoring a profitable hotel, commercial and residential complex.
“This case is about the defendant’s effort to corrupt the United Nations to get what he wanted,” prosecutor Doug Zolkind said in his opening statement. “ . . . If he built this center he knew there was no limit to how much he’d profit.”
Ashe, who was also charged, died in a weightlifting accident. Lorenzo has pleaded guilty and has become the government’s star witness in a case that Zolkind said was about not only profit, but about capping his career.
“The defendant also wanted to leave his mark on China and on the world,” he argued. “To be the man who established a permanent United Nations center in China — that would be his legacy.”
But Park turned the government’s theory upside down.
He said the part about the legacy was true, but Lorenzo, Ashe and associates used that as a lure to draw Ng into a “public-private partnership” and provide them with cash that would lay the groundwork for a facility where poorer nations could work on issues like poverty and climate change.
“That’s not bribery,” he said. “Whether it’s the United Nations, the United States or Mars, that’s not bribery. It’s called philanthropy.”
The alleged bribes, he said, included $200,000 for a U.N. fund to support Ashe’s general assembly presidency and a $20,000 a month salary he paid Lorenzo to run a publication. In the end, he said, they ripped off Ng and turned on him when the FBI charged bribery.
Park also took aim at the government’s claim that Ng did it for profit, telling jurors that the construction of a man-made island and free conference center and then surrounding complex would extend any return on investment well past Ng’s life span.
“If he breaks even before he’s dead, he’s a lucky man,” Park said.
Ng was arrested in late 2015, after making several visits to the U.S. with large cash sums that he claimed were for gambling, purchases of art and renovations to an Old Brookville house owned by a man who the government suspected was a Chinese intelligence agent.
The house does not figure in the U.N. bribery case. Ng, who hired a private security firm to watch him in a luxury apartment to avoid jail while awaiting trial, faces charges of bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.