Ex-U.N. diplomat, others plead not guilty in U.S. bribery case

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former U.N. General Assembly president, a billionaire Macau real estate developer and three others accused by U.S. authorities of engaging in a wide-ranging bribery scheme pleaded not guilty on Thursday.

John Ashe, a former U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda and onetime General Assembly president accused of taking more than $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese businessmen, pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court to tax fraud charges.

Ng Lap Seng, a developer from the Chinese territory Macau who has a $1.8 billion net worth and who prosecutors say paid $500,000 in bribes to Ashe, pleaded not guilty to charges including bribery and money laundering.

Other defendants who pleaded not guilty include Francis Lorenzo, a now-suspended deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic; Jeff Yin, Ng's assistant; and Sheri Yan, who had been chief executive of Global Sustainability Foundation.

Their arraignment came after a federal grand jury indicted the defendants on Tuesday, adding new charges in a case first announced Oct. 6.

Prosecutors said Ng, who heads Sun Kian Ip Group, through intermediaries paid Ashe over $500,000 to seek U.N. support of a U.N.-sponsored conference center in Macau.

Ashe, 61, also received over $800,000 from Chinese businessmen to support their interests within the U.N. and Antigua, prosecutors said. They said those payments were arranged through Yan, 56, and Heidi Park, who was Global Sustainability Foundation's finance director.

Park, 52, was not among those indicted on Tuesday, though she remains in custody and the deadline to indict her has not expired.

Ng, 68, and Yin, 29, were arrested on Sept. 19 in an earlier case for allegedly making false statements to customs officials about why they brought $4.5 million into the United States from China.

Over the objections of prosecutors, a federal magistrate judge last Friday said Ng could be released on $50 million bond and be placed under house arrest under 24-hour watch by two private security guards.

At Thursday's hearing, prosecutors sought to appeal that decision, saying Ng should not as a wealthy defendant be allowed to establish a "private jail" at a $3.6 million luxury apartment in Manhattan and calling him a flight risk.

"If he hits Chinese soil, he will never return," said Daniel Richenthal, a prosecutor.

But while U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick said certain conditions should be made tougher, he declined to order Ng detained further.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)