(Bloomberg) -- A Chinese developer bribed two ambassadors to the United Nations to win approval for a development project in Macau, a federal prosecutor told a jury as a corruption and money laundering trial against the businessman got underway Thursday.
“This case is about this man’s effort to corrupt the United Nations to get what he wanted,” prosecutor Douglas Zolkind said of the defendant, Ng Lap Seng.
Ng, a billionaire real estate developer, is accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to former UN General Assembly President John Ashe and other officials to win their backing for a multibillion-dollar conference center for the UN in Macau that he wanted to build. Ng denies the bribery allegations.
The idea was to make the center the home to much of China’s UN-related activity. Ng also sought to have an annual UN conference on developing nation issues permanently held there, replacing the previous practice of using a different host city every year.
Authorities allege the conference center -- which Ng agreed to build at no cost -- was intended to enhance the value of a surrounding complex of thousands of apartment units, office space, a casino and hotel that he planned to develop. Ng and others involved in the alleged scheme were arrested before it was built.
Ng’s defense lawyer, Tai Park, told the jury that the payments by Ng were not bribes. Rather, he said they were payments in support of the project, which he regarded as a public-private partnership between himself and the UN that he agreed to join at the urging of others.
“It is not a crime to support a cause other people want to advance,” Park said. “Mr. Ng wanted to do good.”
Six defendants were originally charged in the case, including Ashe. Ashe died in a weightlifting accident last year as his lawyer was negotiating a plea agreement with the government. In addition to serving as president of the general assembly, Ashe was the ambassador to the UN from the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
The other remaining defendants have pleaded guilty, with some agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution. One of them, Francis Lorenzo, is now expected to be a key government witness and testify against Ng during trial.
Lorenzo was a deputy ambassador to the UN from the Dominican Republic who was accused of funneling some of the bribe money to Ashe. In his guilty plea, he admitted in court that he helped get a $200,000 payment into a foreign bank account belonging to Ashe, saying “the purpose was to influence John Ashe to the benefit of Ng Lap Seng and others.”
Some of the money was used to fund the construction of a basketball court at Ashe’s home in New York and pay for a family vacation, prosecutors have said. Ashe allegedly used some of the money he received to lease a BMW, buy Rolex watches and order custom-tailored suits, as well as sharing some of it with Antigua’s prime minister to advance Chinese interests in the country.
The officials then used their positions at the UN to advance Ng’s efforts to win formal support for the conference center development, including issuing a contract for the development and agreement letters naming Ng’s company as the exclusive developer of the property.
Zolkind, the prosecutor, said the bribes included $20,000 a month to Lorenzo for a nominal job as president of a media organization Ng owned, a $200,000 lump-sum payment to Ashe and a $2,500 monthly payment to Ashe’s wife for a “no-show job.”
But Ng’s defense lawyer, Park, said the jury will not see any evidence of corrupt intent or guilty conscience on Ng’s part, noting there was no effort made to conceal the payments. He also said the project was a costly undertaking, and that Ng stood to gain little from it.
“Where’s the evidence it was going to make one red cent?” Park said. “This was going to be an enormously costly undertaking. If this was a bribery scheme, ladies and gentlemen, it was the dumbest one ever conceived.”
The trial before Judge Vernon Broderick could last four to six weeks.
The case is U.S. v Ashe et al, 15-cr-00706, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).