Rags to Riches

Chinese Billionaire Arrested in U.N. Bribery Case Has Clinton Links

Ng Lap Seng is charged with conspiracy to bribe a United Nations official. In the ’90s he funneled $1 million to the DNC and the Clinton-Gore ticket.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

One name the Clintons cannot be happy to see back in the news is Ng Lap Seng.

Ng being the mega-rich Chinese national who used a proxy to pour more than $1 million into the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore campaign back in 1996. Scandal was joined by embarrassment when it turned out that Ng had been favored with 10 visits to the White House, including an elevator ride with Hillary Clinton.

His proxy went to prison, but Ng escaped criminal charges. He continued the life of a billionaire real estate developer in Macau with ties to the upper levels of the Chinese government and possibly its intelligence services.

Ng is said to have started life in dire poverty and to have bribed a Chinese cop to slip into Macau. He started out there selling scavenged cloth to garment factories and became what The Washington Post would call “a literal rags-to-riches story.” His holdings grew to include the Fortuna Hotel, where the Communist Party partied, a massage-table dance-karaoke spot for the Chinese military and supposedly Triad gangsters.

“Attractive and attentive hostesses from China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, together with erotic girls from Europe and Russia, certainly offer you an exciting and unforgettable evening with friends or business associates,” the Fortuna’s literature boasts.

Maybe Ng figured all that stateside fuss about the Clintons was forgotten when he made a series of brief trips to New York with suitcases of cash on a total of 10 occasions between July 12, 2013, and July 5 of this year. The amounts ranged from $200,000 to $900,000, for a total in excess of $4.5 million.

Ng may also have assumed that the feds could not prove otherwise when he told them the money was variously intended for gambling, acquiring real estate, and purchasing art and antiques. The FBI set to work.

“In truth and in fact the more than $4.5 million in cash was not principally used for or intended to be used for these purposes,” the FBI concluded in the resulting criminal complaint filed last month.

The complaint charges Ng and an assistant named Jeff Yin with “Conspiracy to Obstruct the Function of and to Make False Statements to United States Customs and Border Protection.” Ng was arrested when he was about to board one of a $30 million fleet of private planes for a flight home. He was sporting a gold and diamond watch said to be worth $200,000. He had three cellphones and 20 credit cards.

At the arraignment, Ng’s lawyer insisted on his client’s innocence. Prosecutors argued that Ng’s vast wealth—estimated at $1.8 billion, with a monthly income of $25 million—made him a flight risk. He was remanded without bail and became one of the very few billionaires to find himself behind bars.

For anybody who gave credence to the government’s allegations, the big question was: What did he really intend to do with the money?

He surely was not foolish enough to make another cash venture into U.S. politics. And there was no way Hillary Clinton was about to have anything to with a guy who had caused her and her husband such embarrassment two decades ago.

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The FBI offered at least a partial answer on Tuesday with a second criminal complaint, this one charging Ng and Yin with “Conspiracy to Bribe a United Nations Official.”

The UN official being John Ashe, one-time president of the General Assembly and still the permanent representative from Antigua and Barbuda.

The complaint alleges that the Chinese billionaire paid Ashe at least $500,000 in bribes to use “his official position to obtain for Ng potentially lucrative investments in Antigua.”

That, and to support what the complaint describes as “a multibillion dollar, UN sponsored conference center in Macau, China” that would include a “Global business incubator.”

“In exchange for the payments from Ng, among other actions, Ashe submitted a UN document to the UN Secretary General, which claimed that there was a purported need to build the UN Macau Conference Center,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint cites a Ng assistant as saying that his 68-year-old boss “viewed the building for the UN Macau Conference Center as Ng’s ‘legacy’ in Macau.” Ng apparently wants to be remembered for more than the Fortuna fun palace of song and boom boom.

A glimpse of his hopes had come in August, when Ng hosted a high class UN conference in Macau such as might be held in a conference center. The glossy program had a photo of Ng, listing him as chairman of the foundation sponsoring the event. There was also a photo of Ashe, who is described as the foundation’s co-chairman.

The criminal complaint further alleges that Ashe took more than $800,000 from various other Chinese businessmen seeking influence at the United Nations and with the Antigua government. These funds were allegedly funneled by two co-defendants, Shiwei Yan and Heidi Hong Piao.

Another UN official, Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative to the United Nations for the Dominican Republic, allegedly conveyed big bennies as the president of Ng’s foundation, paying for an extravagant New Orleans vacation for Ashe’s family and hiring Ashe's wife as a $2,500-a-month “climate change consultant.”

The feds believe that Ashe stashed more than $1 million of bribe money in Office of the President of the General Assembly (PGA) bank accounts, taking what he needed to fund a lavish lifestyle. He paid himself what he felt he deserved.

“The majority of the funds that Ashe withdrew from the PGA accounts were in the form of checks made out to Ashe that Ashe signed himself and had ‘salary’ written in the check memo line,” the complaint says.

As set forth in the complaint, Ashe spent at least $59,000 on custom suits, $54,000 on a pair of Rolex watches, and $30,000 on a private basketball court.

“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,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at a press conference on Tuesday.

To be fair, in selling himself, Ashe also allegedly got a $40,000 lease on a BMW X5 as well as what the complaint describes as “a membership to a luxury vacation club in South Carolina for approximately $69,000.”

On top of this, there was dough for mortgage payments on the suburban Westchester home where Ashe was arrested Tuesday morning. He had waived full diplomatic immunity when he applied to become a legal permanent resident of the U.S., but as a UN official he remained immune from prosecution when it comes to official actions.

As the feds are happy to note, that does not include cheating on your taxes. And here comes into play a principle cited at the press conference by Manny Muriel, assistant special agent in charge for the New York field office of the IRS-Criminal Investigation.

Illegal income, including bribes, is taxable,” Muriel said.

At his arraignment, Ashe was charged with tax fraud. Bail was set at $1 million.

Ng enjoys no immunity and faces bribery charges on top of the original ones for allegedly lying about the cash. Ng’s lawyer continues to insist on his client's innocence. Ng continues to be held without bail.

A billionaire who once visited the White House is now consigned to the big house.

Should he be convicted, Ng might end up in prison along with former New York state Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and a host of other local officials who have been arrested during Bharara’s crusade against public corruption. That effort has now led to the United Nations.

“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.

Bribery is bribery, and Ng faces up to 10 years in prison, just as he would if he were some New York grafter.

But Ng is no doubt aware that he would be one of the very last guys in line for a pardon should his former elevator mate become President Hillary Clinton.