Last week, Ng Lap Seng, a billionaire real estate developer from Macau, was sentenced to four years in federal prison for bribing two UN bigshots.
Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region of China.
The bribe takers in Ng’s case were Francis Lorenzo, a former UN Ambassador from the Dominican Republic, and John Ashe from Antigua and Barbuda.
Ashe first served at the UN as the Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda, and later as 68th President of the UN General Assembly.
Lorenzo pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Ashe was also charged but died before his trial started.
In another recent case, a China-born woman named Julia Vivi Wang pleaded guilty to FCPA offenses. She also bribed Ashe, sending him at least $800,000, according to her plea.
Ng, from Macau, wanted support from Ashe and Lorenzo for a conference center there. Wang’s bribes to Ashe were intended to help land projects in Antigua.
At least three other China-born defendants pleaded guilty in the Ng case, either for helping move bribe money, pay the bribes, or cover them up.
In November last year, the DOJ unsealed an indictment in a China-linked bribery plot “hatched in the halls of the United Nations,” according to Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim.
The alleged mastermind was Patrick Ho Chi-ping. He served as Hong Kong’s Secretary for Home Affairs from 2002 to 2007 and now heads an NGO funded by a Shanghai-based, government-linked China energy company.
Ho has pleaded not guilty and is headed for trial.
He allegedly bribed Sam Kahamba Kutesa. The DOJ didn’t name Kutesa. But the indictment described an Ugandan official who “recently completed his term as the President of the UN General Assembly.”
Kutesa fits that description.
(The UN was in the background of another recent FCPA enforcement action. Last year the brother and a nephew of former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were charged with trying to bribe a Qatari official to finance the sale of a high-rise building complex in Vietnam. The nephew, Dennis Bahn, pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan. Ban Ki-moon, a Korean, hasn’t been charged in the case and, so far, no one from the UN is implicated.)
None of these cases on their own prove Chinese authorities are targeting the UN with bribery. And none of the defendants appear to have direct links to government bodies in China. The bribe givers could have been acting independently and on their own.
But the alleged fact patterns concerning Ng, Wang, and Ho are remarkably consistent. Individuals with apparent high-level commercial contacts in China or one of its Special Administrative Regions allegedly networked with UN officials and bribed them, in return for their support for big projects that would likely be backed by China-linked investors.
Why target the UN for bribes, if that’s what happened?
Are UN officials particularly vulnerable to corruption? Are appointed officials, often from less developed countries, given too much concentrated power? Do they feel somehow protected by the UN structure, and less likely to be caught?
Is there a culture of corruption at the top of the UN? Is there an expectation of bribery in the minds of those looking to buy illegal influence, and those willing to sell it?
Does the UN lack institutional controls that would prevent or detect corrupt patterns of behavior? Are UN whistleblowers unwilling to come forward because they fear retribution? Does business at the UN happen too often behind closed doors, where the public and press can’t see it?
Again, there’s no direct evidence that we know of that China officials have somehow targeted top people at the UN for bribery.
But three recent cases have more than a few alleged facts in common. So there’s a reason to ask: Is the Chinese government or elements within it intentionally targeting UN officials with bribery in order to obtain or retain business or gain an unfair advantage?
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.