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Ex-UN General Assembly Head Among 6 Held In Bribery Scheme

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A former president of the United Nations General Assembly turned the world body into a "platform for profit'' by accepting over $1 million in bribes and a trip to New Orleans from a billionaire Chinese real estate mogul and other business people to pave the way for lucrative investments, a prosecutor charged Tuesday.

John Ashe, a former 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 who lives in the Bronx.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara repeatedly noted that it was early in the investigation and told reporters that as it proceeds: "We will be asking: Is bribery business as usual at the U.N.?''

He added: "I wouldn't be surprised if we see other people charged.''

EXTRA: Click Here To Read The Full Criminal Complaint

The prosecutor said Ashe "converted the United Nations into a platform for profit'' when bribery opportunities were dangled before him by Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng, 67, and others.

He said the charges show that the "cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well.''

"As alleged, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the U.N. General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led," Bharara said.

"We obviously just learned of the very serious allegations this morning,'' Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told reporters. Dujarric said Ki-moon was "shocked and deeply troubled'' by the allegations that "go to the heart and integrity of the U.N.''

Still, he challenged Bharara's claims, saying, "Corruption is not business as usual at the U.N.'' He said the U.N.'s legal department and senior officials were not informed of the probe in advance.

Dujarric noted that the president of the General Assembly "does not report to the secretary-general and is completely independent in functions.'' He said the U.N. had not found any documentation of the claims involving Macau.

Those charged in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court included Seng, who was arrested two weeks ago along with his chief assistant, Jeff C. Yin, 29, a U.S. citizen whose bail was revoked last week over allegations that he lied to investigators after his arrest.

Diego Rodriguez, head of the FBI's New York office, said the charges should be a warning "to those who come to the United States from other countries with corruption plans or bags full of cash.''

"No one is above or beyond the law," he said.

According to court papers, the 61-year-old Ashe used his U.N. positions to support a multibillion-dollar U.N.-sponsored conference center that Ng hoped to build as his legacy in Macau, where he lived, and to help Ng meet government officials from Antigua. Prosecutors said the conference center would function as a sort of satellite operation for the world body.

The scheme unfolded over the course of nearly three years, from 2011 through 2014, prosecutors said.

Ng and his assistant had 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 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 lease a luxury car, pay his home mortgage, buy watches and custom suits, and construct a $30,000 basketball court at his home in Dobbs Ferry, where he was arrested Tuesday.

"$59,000 on a single order of custom tailored suits, $54,000 for a pair of Rolex watches and $40,000 to lease a new BMW," Bharara said.

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, 57, and Heidi Park, 52, both naturalized U.S. citizens who reside in China and helped facilitate the scheme, prosecutors said. It wasn't clear who was representing them.

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.

The United Nations has known for years that the office of the General Assembly president had transparency issues.

A UN internal audit warned in 2010 that some General Assembly presidents had supplemented their office's budgets with ``direct agreements'' with member states and that the presidents were not required to report that money. It gave no details.

``The lack of transparency concerning such funds may pose a reputational risk for the organization,'' the audit said.

If convicted, Ashe faces a possible 15 years in prison.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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