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Top U.N. diplomat arrested over Chinese bribery scheme

NEW YORK -- A former president of the United Nations General Assembly was arrested Tuesday and charged with accepting over $1 million in bribes and a trip to New Orleans for his family from a billionaire Chinese real estate mogul and other business people to pave the way for lucrative investments.

John Ashe, the U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served in the largely ceremonial post from September 2013 to September 2014, faces conspiracy- and bribery-related charges along with five others, including Francis Lorenzo, a deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic.

Those charged in a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court included Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng, who was arrested two weeks ago along with his chief assistant, Jeff C. Yin, a U.S. citizen whose bail was revoked last week after investigators said he lied to them after his arrest.

The complaint, which names both Ashe and his wife, Anilla Cherian, who was not arrested, took U.N. officials by surprise, reports CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk. Just two weeks ago, on September 17, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke at a book launch for Cherian in the Delegates Dining Room at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The Secretary General's Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said after the arrest: "Of course, the Secretary General was shocked and deeply troubled to learn this morning of the allegations against John Ashe, the former President of the General Assembly, which go to the heart of the integrity of the United Nations."

The current President of the General Assembly planned a press conference to discuss the charges, as Ashe and Lorenzo were to be make their initial appearance on the complaint in the Magistrate's Court in the Southern District of New York.

The complaint makes clear that the U.S. Attorney's office believes that neither Ashe nor Lorenzo will assert diplomatic immunity, Falk reports, because the acts in question were outside their diplomatic duties.

Lawyers for Ng, Yin and Lorenzo did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It was not immediately clear who would represent Ashe at an initial court appearance Tuesday. A message for comment left at Lorenzo's mission was also not immediately returned.

According to court papers, Ashe used his U.N. positions to introduce a document supporting a multibillion-dollar U.N.-sponsored conference center that Ng hoped to build as his legacy in Macau, where he lived. Prosecutors said the conference center would function as a sort of satellite operation for the world body.

At the press conference, Preet Bahara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York leading the case, said: "If proven, today's charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state officials inflects the United Nations as well. 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."

The scheme unfolded over the course of nearly three years, from 2011 through 2014, and included Ashe's tenure as General Assembly head, prosecutors said. Authorities said in return for bribes, Ashe used his U.N. authority to promote Ng's interests and helped Ng meet government officials from Antigua who could help him with investments.

Ng and his assistant had previously been held by federal authorities on charges they lied about plans for $4.5 million in cash brought into the U.S. over several years aboard private jets.

Prosecutors say some of the bribe money funded first-class airfare for Ashe, his wife and two children to New Orleans, where they stayed in an $850-a-night hotel room.

Other money, they said, was used to construct a $30,000 basketball court at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York. He opened two bank accounts to receive the funds and then underreported his income by more than $1.2 million, officials said.

No one answered a phone call to the mission for Antigua; Ashe is no longer listed in the U.N. directory. A message left with a representative for the General Assembly wasn't immediately returned.

Prosecutors said two other arrested individuals were involved with Ng. They were identified as Sheri Yan and Heidi Park, both naturalized U.S. citizens who reside in China and helped facilitate the scheme, prosecutors said. It wasn't clear who was representing them.