Criminal or hero? Macau billionaire Ng Lap-seng’s UN bribery trial begins with duelling narratives

Payments to ambassadors were philanthropy, not bribery, defence lawyer says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 10:58pm

Macau billionaire Ng Lap-seng was portrayed as a criminal and a hero during opening statements at his United Nations bribery trial in New York on Thursday.

Assistant US Attorney Douglas Zolkind told Manhattan federal court jurors that 69-year-old Ng corrupted two UN ambassadors so he could build a legacy by constructing a massive UN conference centre in Macau.

Defence attorney Tai Park countered that Ng was a philanthropist willing to spend billions of dollars to build the centre to benefit the UN before being betrayed by one of the ambassadors who requested contributions from him.

“Mr Ng acted in good faith at all times,” Park said. “He did not bribe anyone, not a single cent.”

Park said Ng’s actions were consistent with how the UN operates with public-private partnerships and he was being vilified after a heroic gesture of philanthropy.

“That’s not bribery, whether it’s the United Nations, this court, this country or Mars,” Park said. “That’s philanthropy!”

But Zolkind said Ng paid at least US$1.7 million in bribes to ambassadors including a former UN General Assembly president so his company would get UN approval to develop the centre.

That’s not bribery, whether it’s the United Nations, this court, this country or Mars
Tai Park, Ng Lap-seng’s lawyer

He said jurors will hear testimony about bribes from Francis Lorenzo, who was paid US$1.5 million over a five-year period to head a Manhattan-based media company for Ng when he served as a diplomat from the Dominican Republic to the United Nations.

But Park said of the US$240,000 paid annually to Lorenzo, who was the company’s president: “It’s called wages, ladies and gentlemen, not bribes.”

Zolkind said Ng began sending Lorenzo an extra US$30,000 a month in late 2012 “for the express purpose of obtaining UN approval for the conference center.”

Meanwhile, Ng paid a US$200,000 bribe in 2014 to John Ashe while he was General Assembly president and UN ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda and paid US$2,500 monthly to Ashe’s wife to perform a no-show job at the Manhattan media company, the prosecutor said.

Park said Ashe, who died in an accident last year, had requested the US$200,000 to support his presidency.

“It didn’t go into his back pocket,” Park said. “It was put to good use.”

Park said payments to Ashe’s wife, an expert on global climate change, came as she worked on a book about how developing nations contribute to climate change and are impacted by it.

The defence lawyer also countered Zolkind’s claims that Ng hoped to build luxury condominiums and other businesses to benefit from the conference centre by saying it will be clear to jurors that Ng had embarked on a quest that had no realistic hope of profit.

“If he breaks even before he’s dead, he’s a lucky man,” Park said.

Zolkind said the conference centre was never built because Ng was arrested in September 2015 before he could capitalise on UN documents listing his company as the developer.

Ng has been confined under 24-hour guard in a luxury Manhattan apartment on US$50 million bail while awaiting trial.