Death of former UN Assembly president John Ashe, accused of taking bribes from Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 12:24pm

Former UN General Assembly president John Ashe of the twin-island Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda died on Wednesday in the United States as he was facing criminal charges in a bribery case involving Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng.

He was 61.

Ashe died at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, according to Sergeant Vincent Ingani, of the Dobbs Ferry Police Department. He gave no other details.

Current UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft confirmed his death, saying Ashe died of a heart attack.

“Despite the many as yet unproven accusations made against him, Mr Ashe was for many years a hard-working and popular member of the diplomatic corps in New York and at the United Nations,” Lykketoft said in a statement. “I know that his death will come as sad news to the many professional friends and colleagues he made during his time here.”

Ashe was a former UN ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served in the largely ceremonial post of president of the 193-nation assembly from September 2013 to September 2014.

He was accused last year by US federal authorities of turning the position into a “platform for profit”.

In October, he was charged in a corruption probe at the organisation, accused of taking US$1.3 million in bribes. Also charged in the case was Francis Lorenzo, the ambassador to the UN for the Dominican Republic, who’s accused of helping Ng pay bribes to Ashe and others.

A series of payments intended to win UN support for a multibillion-dollar project in Macau were made by Chinese nationals and Lorenzo to Ashe, the US says.

Separately, other Chinese nationals were accused of paying Ashe hundreds of thousands of dollars to open doors in his native Antigua, according to prosecutors. Ashe also introduced a Chinese business executive to a UN counterpart from Kenya, with the goal of facilitating business investments in Nairobi, the U.S. said.

This scheme was the UN’s biggest financial corruption scandal since oil-for-food allegations that tarnished the tenure of former Secretary General Kofi Annan. According to a 21-page confidential report by the UN’s own investigators at the Office of Internal Oversight Services, a UN document was altered to aid a project backed by Ng and improper travel expenses were paid by non-governmental organisations.

Ashe was also accused of sharing some of the bribe money with the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda as he lobbied for the Chinese interests, prosecutors said.

Of the six charged in the case, two have pleaded guilty. Ashe, who’d pleaded not guilty to the charges, was awaiting trial.

In a letter sent to US District Judge Vernon Broderick last month, Jeremy Schneider, Ashe’s lawyer, said his client was in plea talks with prosecutors.

Jim Margolin, a spokesman for Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara, declined to comment on Ashe’s death.

It wasn’t clear how Ashe’s death would affect the bribery case.

“It’s a tragic loss for his family and the community. He was preparing to fight his case at trial,” said Schneider.

Ashe held a doctorate in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the foreign service in 1989 and was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for his global diplomatic service, according to his UN biography.

As a diplomat, Ashe was heavily involved in sustainable development issues, taking leadership roles in some of the major UN environmental agreements.

“We only have the planet we live on, and if we are to leave it in a reasonable state for the next generation, the quest for a safer, cleaner, and more equitable world is one that should consume us all,” Ashe said in a UN release.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg