Only weeks before John Ashe, the former president of the United Nations General Assembly, was arrested for tax fraud amid a bribery scandal uncovered by the United States government, Ashe was tapped to potentially take an important job in Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office in New York.
Ashe, who was an ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda when he became the General Assembly president from 2013 to 2014, was being considered for a new role as a main focal point to carry out the Sustainable Development Goals, since Amina Mohammed, who has been Ban’s special adviser on the SDGs, is leaving to return to her native Nigeria. Mohammed tirelessly supervised the creation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals over several years; the goals were formally adopted by the UN General Assembly in September.
Ashe had led negotiations over at least a decade in several sustainable development summit meetings, including the one known as Rio+20 in 2012. As the website for his General Assembly presidency says, “Guided by a passion for sustainable development, Mr. Ashe has been in the forefront of international efforts to address the adverse effects of climate change and the fight to eradicate poverty.”
Needless to say, Ashe was not appointed to any job in the UN, a spokesman for Ban said.
Although Ashe was indicted by the US government on Oct. 6 for tax fraud, he has been implicated in an elaborate bribery scheme orchestrated apparently by a Chinese real estate developer, Ng Lap Seng, based in Macau, a territory of China.
As alleged and using bribery funds he received through the scheme, Ashe bought luxury goods and even constructed a basketball court at his home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to which he had gone to such lengths as to receive municipal approval.
As Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said when the criminal charges were announced, Ashe, the 68th president of the UN General Assembly, sold himself and the institution he led. “United in greed, the defendants allegedly formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit,” Bharara said.
Another diplomat, Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative for the Dominican Republic to the UN, was also charged in the $1.3 million bribery scheme, as was Ng Lap Seng and four other Chinese businesspeople.
The money was allegedly used to pay Ashe to buy favors through his office in the General Assembly, which consists of all 193 member nations of the UN, and through his government in the Caribbean. The charges of tax fraud cover his failure to report or pay income taxes on the more than $1 million he received in bribes in 2013 and 2014.
The salary of the presidency of the UN General Assembly is not paid by the UN but instead is paid by the president’s own government through various means, which can include outside fund-raising. The presidency is not an official UN position, hence its ability to operate independently to some extent, including opening outside bank accounts to pay for certain costs, as Ashe was said to be doing.
Yukio Takasu, under secretary-general for management at the UN, who is Japanese, recently said that the UN had no “authority to investigate outside accounts.”
Ashe’s expenses as president of the General Assembly, say some who were aware of his activities, included extensive traveling overseas as a General Assembly official, including to Macau to help Ng promote a plan to open a UN conference center there. Other expenses include temporarily paying the salaries of some of Ashe’s staff members before he officially became president of the General Assembly in September 2013.
UN investigators had even questioned some members of Ashe’s staff for inappropriate messaging in their emails.
Lorenzo’s other affiliation, with the International Organization for South South Cooperation, announced its suspension of him as its executive president since the US charges were brought against him. The organization‘s own financing and mission are obscure.
In response to the allegations by the US government, Ban Ki-moon has ordered an audit of a foundation whose chief executive, Sheri Yan, was among those arrested in the bribery scheme. The Global Sustainability Foundation includes among its board members and other “leaders” John Ashe and Edith Kutesa, the wife of Sam Kutesa, also a former president of the UN General Assembly and a Ugandan. She has not been charged with any crimes and was previously a representative of the UN Development Program in Benin.
The UN audit will also look into the Sun Kian Ip Group Foundation, a charity of Ng’s. Its website, also short on details, says it “seeks to serve as a facilitator for key stakeholders in building the capacity of developing countries to leverage innovation and creativity in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.”
The foundation gave $1.5 million to the Office for South-South Cooperation, Ban’s office said. The funds furthered the cause of the Macau conference center, including a “high-level” forum in August in China. (Lorenzo was also affiliated with the foundation, as was Ashe, though their names have vanished from the site.)
The Office for South-South Cooperation falls under the purview of the UN Development Program, separate from Ban’s office and the Secretariat. The UNDP, as it is known, has its own budget, executive board and controller and operates under the supervision of the General Assembly. The development entity, which is administered by Helen Clark, a New Zealander, has started its own inquiry into the Office for South-South Cooperation, Takasu said.
[This article was updated.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.