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Steps for More Transparency in UN General Assembly Office Stir Skepticism


Mogens Lykketoft, a former Danish foreign minister and the current president of the UN General Assembly.
Mogens Lykketoft, a former Danish foreign minister and the current president of the UN General Assembly.

The president of the United Nations General Assembly has vowed to make his office more open, including publicly documenting his travels and financial contributions from outside donors, in response to the recent criminal accusation by the United States government against a predecessor, John Ashe.

In a parallel move, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is organizing a task force to historically study the structure of the General Assembly presidency office to find ways to ensure its good reputation in the future. As a UN staff member said, people at the UN are highly troubled by the criminal accusations.

Yet both actions by the UN leaders have prompted more questions amid doubts that the UN can put the Ashe scandal behind it too soon in a coherent way.

“I was and remain deeply shocked by these accusations,” said Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane who took up the yearlong presidency of the General Assembly in mid-September, to the press this week, detailing the new steps toward more credibility. Lykketoft is a former foreign minister of Denmark. He succeeded Sam Kutesa of Uganda as president of the General Assembly, who had followed Ashe.

Only weeks after Lykketoft took office at the UN General Assembly, the US government charged Ashe, a former diplomat from the small Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, for two counts of tax fraud in a bribery scheme that began in 2011, before Ashe took office at the General Assembly, and that carried through to 2014, as he finished his term. Ashe is a permanent US resident and is required to pay US taxes.

Ashe underreported his income to the US by more than $1.2 million in 2013 and 2014, the New York federal prosecutor said.  

A Chinese billionaire real estate developer, an array of other Chinese players and a diplomat from the Dominican Republic have been charged in the bribery scheme. Although Ashe was not indicted for bribery, he was accused of soliciting more than $3 million in bribes from Ng Lap Seng, known as David Ng, the developer from Macau, to influence Ashe’s ability to procure business interests at the UN — mainly the development of a UN conference center in Macau — and in Antigua.

Despite Lykketoft’s new efforts to transform the General Assembly presidency into a more honest entity in the UN system, questions hover about Ashe’s machinations and why a prominent member of his staff, the chef de cabinet, or chief of staff, is still working for the office, albeit in a different job.

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The task force to be assembled by Ban is being questioned, too, on its proposed working methods, since documents held by Ashe and Kutesa (and previous presidents) apparently were removed — as a matter of course — when these officials left office, Ban’s spokesman said. He qualified that assessment later by saying that “official UN accounts” from the office might be held in archives.

No hand-written notes or notebooks or other physical materials were passed on to Lykketoft’s office by his immediate predecessor; but business done through emails set up by the UN or UN accounts, including bank statements, would have been archived, a person in the Assembly office said, speaking on background.

Administrative transactions of the presidential office are carried out by the Executive Office of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, which manages some of the presidency’s expenses.

As Lykketoft said, “We have no information sheets about the past,” adding “there may be information in other places in the organization because much of it . . . had to be checked in the organization.”

Lykketoft’s plans to make the office more responsible include a proposal to the General Assembly, which consists of all 193 members of the UN, that would ensure that the presidency continues to respect the “checks and balances” through regular briefings to the Assembly and audits of the budget and trust fund connected to the presidency, which can accept private donations.

The reference to the budget and trust fund hark back to a ruse of Ashe, who allegedly used donations to the Assembly presidency for his personal needs. The US government said in its indictment that Ashe set up two American bank accounts to deposit the bribes, one in his name and one in the “Office of the President of the General Assembly PGA Operating Account” to supposedly pocket money raised for his presidency.

Ashe was the sole signatory for both accounts, depositing and withdrawing from them for his own use, like paying for the lease of his BMW and other luxury items. The US complaint noted that from about 2012 until about 2014, Ashe received over $3 million in the two accounts from foreign governments and individuals.

A majority of the money he withdrew from the accounts were checks made out to himself that he signed. In the check memo line he would write “salary.”

Such alleged criminality has led Lykketoft to push for more “transparency” in such ways as setting up a page on the presidency’s website and enhancing a code of conduct to entail “avoiding conflicts of interest and ensuring gender and geographical balance” in the office.

His office, he said, is already publicly posting information about “official travel, finances and engagements.” Lykketoft, for example, recently went to China, a trip paid for by that government. Every time there is a “travel financed by somebody else, it will be exposed on our side,” he told the media.

The reference to travel is pertinent to Ashe, who took extensive trips around the world instead of actively participating in General Assembly work, UN sources have said.

John Ashe
John Ashe, the ex-president of the UN General Assembly charged by the US with tax fraud.

Moreover, questions have come up inside the UN as to whether Paulette Bethel of the Bahamas and Ashe’s chef de cabinet, knew about any misdeeds of her former boss, given her No. 2 position in his office. In her job, she would have most likely overseen transactions of the office budget and the trust fund. She now works in Lykketoft’s office as a special adviser. She has not been charged with any crime.

Although Bethel was not named in the indictment against Ashe and the others, it mentioned that Ashe’s “chef de cabinet” had traveled with him at least once, to Macau, to meet with Ng regarding the potential UN conference center he was hoping to build with the UN’s blessings. While the UN is holding its own internal investigation into entities related to the Ashe scandal, others in the General Assembly president’s office do not view Bethel as complicit in the bribery scheme. She was hired by Lykketoft’s office before news of the Ashe accusations surfaced.

The trip to Macau had occurred, the US government says, in exchange for a $200,000 payment from Ng to one of the accounts that Ashe set up in the name of the President of the General Assembly, his role at the time. Ashe made no bones about the trip’s underlying purpose. As the indictment says, he wrote in an email to Francis Lorenzo, the Dominican diplomat and apparent go-between in the bribery scheme, who has been charged in the operation by the US:

“Even though NG [Ng] has made a lot of empty promises in the past, I am willing to travel to Macau to see his project, since it is important to him. But it has to [be] made absolutely clear to him that I will not go unless I see the funds — funds which are NOT for my personal use but to help run the PGA office. Period. Please let them know that I am requesting somewhere between $100K and $250K.”

Ban’s task force will supplement an audit by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services of “interactions” between the UN and the entities named in the US complaint, including two nonprofit groups that were reportedly laundering money.

Ban has repeatedly said that the presidency of the General Assembly falls into the purview of that UN body and not his office in the UN Secretariat. But as he told the Assembly this week, “it is incumbent on all of us to help get this right.”

The task force will review the set-up of the Assembly president’s financing and staffing. Some of the personnel costs are paid through the UN’s regular budget or through the trust fund, leaving somewhat open the chances that private donations from individuals or governments can filter in with dubious motives.

The UN pays an annual $322,000 to the office of the presidency to cover hospitality, official travel and other expenditures relating to the PGA’s official responsibilities, the office’s website says.

One possible result of the task force recommendations, Ban’s spokesman said, would be to fully finance the office’s expenses through UN budgets. That decision, however, would have to come through the General Assembly. (The presidency, for one, is paid by the national government holding that seat, so Lykketoft receives his paycheck from Denmark, which also pays for some of his traveling.)

To deflect the charges of criminality against such a prominent office in the UN, Lykketoft suggested that the workload of the presidency has increased so much that it needs more money to function and that poor nations that get elected to the presidency “would have difficulties in establishing a sufficient cabinet to support the president because of lack of resources.”

Lykketoft said his office has had “no communication up till now” with the US government on the criminal charges against Ashe and the others.

Ashe is being held on $1 million bail; each count of tax fraud against him carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.


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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach 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 Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working 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.

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