In the grand casino of UN corruption cases, here we go again. This time the news is the arrest on Tuesday, in Dobbs Ferry, New York, of a former president of the United Nations General Assembly, John W. Ashe. Along with five others, Ashe, who also served for years as ambassador to the UN for the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, has been charged in the Southern District of New York with taking part in a $1.3 million bribery scheme.
Allegedly, the scheme entailed bribing Ashe himself. According to the U.S. Attorney’s press release, all six defendants “were charged in connection with a multi-year scheme to pay more than $1.3 million in bribes to ASHE in exchange for official actions in his capacity as UNGA President and Antiguan government official in support of Chinese business interests.”
Though that summary hardly does justice to the saga detailed in the criminal complaint. Among the other five defendants is a former frequent visitor to the Clinton White House, Ng Lap Seng, a.k.a. David Ng, a Macau real estate tycoon who figured in some heated controversies of the late 1990s. In this latest incarnation, as described in the complaint, it appears Ng was “seeking to build a multi-billion dollar, UN-sponsored conference center in Macau, China.” As the Southern District press release details, Ng was arrested last month along with another of the defendants, Jeff C. Yin, “based on a separate complaint alleging that NG and YIN agreed to make false statements to Customs and Border Protection officers about the true purpose of approximately $4.5 million in cash that NG and YIN had brought into the U.S. from China since 2013.”
A note on that: I have covered enough UN corruption cases to be able to tell you that cash is a big element in many of them. Bags of cash, envelopes of cash, bricks of cash, cash in pockets, cash in suitcases, cash on hotel bedspreads. At one point during a court case related to the UN’s Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal, there was a story told on the stand by a government witness of a fellow smuggling hundreds of thousands in $100 bills — gift of Saddam — into the U.S. by way of stuffing the loot into his socks, pants and underwear.
But back to the current case. The full roster of allegations in the complaint make for a complex tale, spanning the years 2011-2014, and involving not only the UN, but contracts in Antigua and Barbuda. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara cut to the bottom line with his statement:
As alleged, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the UN General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led. United in greed, the defendants allegedly formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit.
Where I would quibble with Bharara is that he prefaced this summary with a statement implying that prodigious corruption at the UN is something new:
If proven, today’s charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues too many state and local governments infects the United Nations as well.
A rhetorical flourish, perhaps. But given the UN’s record, the institution deserves its due as a longtime, deeply-entrenched font of corruption already. The UN doesn’t just suffer from corruption; the UN is configured to invite it. The UN is a huge collective of 193 member states, operating globally, across borders and jurisdictions, endowed with immunity and swimming in tens of billions of dollars contributed in substantial part by a few of its wealthiest member states (especially the U.S). The UN is answerable in theory to all and in practice, as a rule, to none — with occasional exceptions when flagrant transgressions take place on turf under U.S. jurisdiction, and the FBI gets involved. Even then, one of the hurdles for any prosecution is UN immunity.
The temptations to game this vast, secretive and well-shielded slush-fund-of-a-system are enormous and varied — all the more so because the UN comes with the ready-made hallmark of a classic scam: it is supposed to be all about doing good works. The schemes of which Ashe has been accused were largely draped in labels such as incubating small business, and promoting development.
In this case, blanket UN immunity does not apply, because Ashe in 2000 became a permanent resident of the U.S., and, as explained in the complaint, that entailed an arrangement in which he had official immunity “only for conduct within the scope of his official positions.” Apparently, U.S. authorities do not believe that serving as a foreign ambassador, or running the UN General Assembly, are jobs in which the official duties include bribe-taking and tax fraud. Ashe is charged with having “fraudulently omitted a total of more than $1.2 million of income from his tax returns, including bribes received and the purported salary ASHE paid himself as President of the United Nations General Assembly” — which resulted in his allegedly understating his total income for 2013 and 2014 by a total of more than $1.2 million.
Let me stress, these are allegations only. Ashe’s lawyer has told the press he expects Ashe will be vindicated. All the defendants are presumed innocent.
But in the broader matter of corruption at the UN, and past cases, here are just a few of the many items come to mind:
1) The General Assembly, which basically embodies the UN, is a place that chronically oozes sleaze, both political and financial. Recall that in 2009, the person the UN picked as president for the GA was a veteran official of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. That was the year Qaddafi, a tyrant who had also won seats for his country on the Security Council and the Human Rights Council (whose members are elected by the General Assembly), came to address the GA as one of the starting lineup of speakers in the general debate. Since 2012, the nation leading the GA’s second largest voting bloc, the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement, has been the terror-sponsoring tyranny of Iran.
On the financial corruption front, in 2007 an official who had served as the highest-ranking Russian at the UN, Vladimir Kuznetsov, was convicted of conspiring with another Russian at the UN, Alexander Yakovlev, to launder hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of kickbacks on UN procurement contracts. What was the official job in which Kuznetsov had thus enriched himself with graft? He was the head of the UN General Assembly’s budget oversight committee.
2) As for the UN becoming a platform for corruption — in the massive Oil-for-Food scandal, the UN was not simply converted into a platform for illicit profit. It became the cover, comprador and de facto business partner of the bloody regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — enriching a vast cast of corrupt characters, at the expense of the hungry and sick people it was supposed to be helping. What the UN advertised as a program to ease the pain of sanctions on Iraq turned into an extravaganza of graft, involving billions worth of kickbacks to Saddam and his business partners, double-dipping into relief funds to pad the budgets of UN agencies, and scams that included Saddam laundering pay-offs via the auspices of the UN, which was collecting a handsome commission on the graft-laden Iraqi oil sales it was supposed to be supervising.
In that case, the head of the program, Benon Sevan, was accused by the UN’s own ensuing inquiry of having taken bribes from Saddam, and was indicted in 2007 in the Southern District of New York. Sevan, who said he was innocent, has never faced justice. In 2005, while the office of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan was assuring the public that Sevan would be available to cooperate with the investigation, Sevan fled New York for his native Cyprus. The UN responded by paying the legal fees Sevan had incurred while under investigation in New York, and paying him his UN pension.
3) UN officials, especially at high levels, tend to be entrusted with large UN programs, or the running of major UN bodies, to which U.S. taxpayers, among others, have — courtesy of their government — contributed billions. There is a sorry record of cases in which UN officials have leveraged such posts — with the trust and other people’s money they entail — into crooked deals for lining their own pockets. And for what? It’s an old and tawdry story: for fancy dwellings, for luxury holidays, for pricey cars, for paying down credit card debts. I’m referring here to past cases, not to the current case.
Though in the current case, the allegations have a familiar ring. The criminal complaint concludes by listing the approximate sums for “several expensive purchases” on which Ashe and his wife allegedly spent some of the money at issue:
— $59,000 in hand-tailored clothes in Hong Kong
— $69,000 for membership in a luxury vacation club in South Carolina
— $54,000 for two Rolex watches
— $40,000 for the lease of a new BMW
— $5,000 in purchases from Gucci stores
To a profoundly disturbing extent, this is the ethos of the UN, where top officials have professed themselves shocked by the arrest of a former president of the General Assembly. While lecturing the world on their plans to end poverty, do they ever ask themselves how so many of their colleagues are able to afford such plush accessories, costly cars and well-tailored suits?