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Former U.N. leader charged in alleged bribery scheme

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By CNN Wire Service.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A former president of the U.N. General Assembly "sold himself and the global institution he led" by allegedly pocketing more than $1 million in bribes to finance a luxury spending spree, according to a federal prosecutor.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, said Tuesday the money allegedly was used to finance Rolex watches, custom suits, a BMW, a family vacation and even a private basketball court.

The man at the center of the charges is John Ashe, the former U.N. ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda and General Assembly president from September 2013 to September 2014.

Ashe, 61, is accused of tax fraud in an alleged conspiracy involving five others, including a billionaire Chinese businessman and a former deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic, according to a criminal complaint.

Ashe is accused of underreporting his income by more than $1.2 million, prosecutors said.

U.N. chief 'deeply troubled' by the allegations

"If proven, today's charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well," Bharara said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "shocked and deeply troubled" by the allegations, which he said struck at "the heart of the integrity of the United Nations," according to spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Attorney Robert Van Lierop said after a hearing that he expects his client to fight the charges and win acquittal, according to media reports.

The Chinese businessman, 67-year-old Ng Lap Seng, paid more than $500,000 in bribes to Ashe, according to the complaint. Ng has been jailed since last month on charges of lying about $4.5 million in cash he allegedly brought into the United States.

Ng is charged with multiple bribery-related counts. According to media reports, Ng's attorney said his client had committed no crime. Attorney Alex Spiro did not immediately return a CNN message left Tuesday evening.

Ng wanted to build a multibillion-dollar U.N. conference center in Macau, China, prosecutors said. In return, Ashe submitted a document in support of the conference center to the the United Nations.

Additionally, Ashe allegedly pocketed more than $800,000 in bribes from various Chinese businessmen to support business deals in Antigua, according to prosecutors. Ashe allegedly shared the bribe money with a former prime minister of Antigua, the complaint said.

Trips, hoops and more

Prosecutors allege the scheme provided Ashe with a vacation in an $850-a-night suite in New Orleans, a $30,000 basketball court in his home, $59,000 on tailored clothing, $54,000 on Rolexes, $40,000 on BMW payments and $69,000 to join a vacation club.

Others charged in the conspiracy were identified as Jeff Yin, 29; Shiwei Yan, 57; Francis Lorenzo, 48, a Dominican Republic envoy; and Heidi Hong Piao, 52, prosecutors said. They each face counts of bribery conspiracy and bribery. Prosecutors contend they facilitated bribes.

Attorney Brian Bieber, in a statement, said, "Ambassador Lorenzo trusted the people he surrounded himself with and relied on their integrity in all of his dealings. Ambassador Lorenzo acted in good faith, contrary to what is stated in the criminal complaint."

The government of Antigua and Barbuda issued a statement on Ashe's arrest, noting that the charges related to his presidency of the General Assembly. The country's former prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, and senior officials from his government were also identified in the complaint against Ashe, the statement said.

"The present government of Antigua and Barbuda has implemented and upholds the highest standards of good governance and accountability," it said.

Ng and Yin were previously arrested and charged in a separate complaint alleging false statements to border agents about the purpose of $4.5 million in cash they had reportedly brought into the United States from China since 2013.

Yan and Piao are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

It was unclear who is representing Yin, Piao and Yan.

CNN's Richard Roth and Lorenzo Ferrigno contributed to this story.

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