Kenya was on Wednesday entangled in a Sh136 million bribery scam involving a former United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) president, who was on Tuesday charged with corruption in a New York court.
John Ashe was charged alongside five people for taking bribes from a Chinese realtor billionaire to facilitate the award of UN real estate contracts to the businessman.
American prosecutors handling the case listed Kenya among the countries that backed the real estate plan with Mr Ashe’s tacit support.
“Mr Ashe also set up meetings with government officials in Antigua and Kenya to help the real estate developers land big development contracts,” US Federal Attorney Preet Bharara said, adding that Mr Bharara said investigations were continuing and more arrests were likely.
Media reports in the US and the United Kingdom (UK) did not indicate which Kenyan government officials were involved in the scam.
Mr Ashe is also said to have introduced an unnamed Chinese businessman to a Kenyan UN official to facilitate business deals in Nairobi.
Court documents show that in November 2013, a Kenyan UN official allegedly met Ms Sheri Yan who was acting as a go-between for a Chinese technology company and Mr Ashe.
Ms Yan is one of the accused alongside Mr Ashe. She later emailed Mr Ashe saying that the meeting was “very productive.”
The company was reportedly keen to do a deal with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Interior) to supply some equipment although the court papers do not indicate what type of equipment.
Two days later, Mr Ashe wrote an email to Ms Yan saying he had talked to the Kenyan official and received an update on their meeting. He wrote saying that the Kenyan UN official would be seeking to make arrangements for the Chinese technology company “to meet with those who are best placed to make a decision on the procurement of the equipment.”
“Ashe also used his position as UNGA President to promote CC-2’s company (unnamed Chinese businessman) to officials with the Government of Kenya,” the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) said in a statement on its website.
Mr Ashe is said to have pushed for the construction of a conference centre in Macau and wanted Ng Lap Seng, 68, the Chinese property developer, awarded the contract.
The FBI said that in exchange for these payments from Mr Ng, among other actions, Mr Ashe submitted a UN document to the UN Secretary- General, which claimed that there was a purported need to build the UN Macau Conference Centre.
“The proposal had the backing of several other countries — including Bangladesh and Kenya — and Mr Ashe’s letter said that the “Sun Kian Ip Group of China has welcomed the initiative and will serve as the representative for the implementation of the Permanent Expo and Meeting Centre,” The New York Times reported.
Mr Ashe who is from Antigua and Barbuda is the highest ranking UN official to be charged with corruption and adds to the list of scandals that have rocked the global body in recent times.
Mr Ashe is accused of forming a corruption ring that he used to convert the UN into a platform for profit.
“He sold himself and the global institution he led. United in greed, the defendants formed a corrupt alliance of business and government, converting the UN into a platform for profit.”
Mr Ashe is charged alongside Francis Lorenzo, the deputy permanent representative to the United Nations for the Dominican Republic, Mr Ng and Jeff Yin.
Reuters reported that the prosecution had indicated the bribes were arranged through Sheri Yan, chief executive officer of a New York-based organisation, and Heidi Park, its finance director, who were also arrested.
The prosecutors said the scheme unfolded between 2011 and 2014, including Ashe’s tenure as the 68th President of the UN General Assembly.
The list of favours that he is accused of having curried with the Chinese businessmen includes payments to cover a New Orleans family vacation and construction of a $30,000 basketball court at his house in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
“From 2012 to 2014, more than $3 million from foreign governments and individuals was deposited in bank accounts controlled by Ashe, who spent the money on his mortgage, BMW lease payments and Rolex watches,” Reuters quoted the prosecutors saying.
Court papers indicate that the accused used non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the US which were purportedly established to promote the UN’s mission and/or development goals to funnel the money to Mr Ashe.
Stephane Dujarric the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, said that Mr Ban Ki-moon was “shocked and deeply troubled” terming the accusations as “going to the heart of the integrity of the legislative process of the United Nations.”
Mr Ashe was only charged with counts of tax violation unlike bribery charges that the other accused are facing.
The prosecutors said they did not expect claims of diplomatic immunity to succeed in the case.
This is the second case of international corruption involving Kenya in the past one year.
Several senior officials were mentioned in a corruption case in the UK popularly dubbed “chickengate” over the printing of ballot papers for several elections.
Kenya has also been lobbying the UN General Assembly and the Security Council seeking deferral or dismissal of cases facing the Deputy-President William Ruto and radio journalist Joshua Sang.