Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng will head to Manhattan federal court on Monday to face charges that he orchestrated an elaborate scheme to bribe Caribbean diplomats to the United Nations, in a trial expected to put a spotlight on China’s ambitions at the international organization.
Prosecutors allege that Mgr. N, a colorful real estate and casino mogul, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to ambassadors to the U.N. from Antigua and Barbuda and the Dominican Republic to get the organization’s support for a multibillion-dollar conference center he and a suspected Chinese intelligence agent planned to build in the Chinese gambling haven of Macau.
Mr. Ng wanted the center to serve as China’s official venue for U.N. events, according to court documents, including the annual expo of the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation, which works with developing countries. A representative for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t respond to requests for comment.
At trial, prosecutors will seek to prove that Mr. Ng, who has pleaded not guilty, both controlled the payments and intended for them to be bribes, according to court documents. Mr. Ng, who turns 69 years old Monday, has been under house arrest in his Manhattan apartment one block from U.N. headquarters since October 2015, secured by a $50 million bond.
Prosecutors will try the case without assistance from John Ashe, a former U.N. official and potential cooperator who died in an incident described as a weight-lifting accident.
The defense has indicated in court papers that it will argue Mr. Ng’s payments weren’t bribes, rather legitimate donations in accordance with U.N. practice.
Mr. Ng’s lawyers argue the case has been improperly driven by a “U.S. geopolitical interest in slowing the progress of Chinese influence over developing nations,” calling it an “unprecedented prosecution stretching the bounds of federal interest and intruding forcefully into the internal affairs of the United Nations.”
The government has rejected such claims.
But prosecutors plan to present at trial evidence purporting to show the involvement of Mr. Ng’s associate, Qin Fei, in the proposed Macau project, according to court documents. U.S. officials suspect Mr. Qin is a Chinese intelligence operative, according to people familiar with the matter.
Though he hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing by U.S. officials, Mr. Qin has surfaced in additional federal cases in Brooklyn.
Former Air China employee Ying Lin, who has pleaded not guilty to charges she smuggled packages for Chinese military officials, was designated by Mr. Qin as an agent for a $10 million mansion he purchased in Long Island, property records show. The airline hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing.
In a separate case, Dan Zhong, a former Chinese diplomat who is also the nephew of a Chinese billionaire, has pleaded not guilty to forced labor charges in conjunction with work his construction company did on Mr. Qin’s house and other projects.
A representative for Mr. Qin, who is believed to be in China, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Lawyers for Ms. Lin and Mr. Zhong didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Ng’s trial, which is estimated to last three to four weeks, is expected to cast the U.N. in a harsh light.
Francis Lorenzo, the government’s star witness, is a former diplomat to the U.N. representing the Dominican Republic whom Mr. Ng allegedly bribed to gin up support for the Macau center, according to court documents. Mr. Lorenzo, who in April pleaded guilty to bribery, money laundering and other charges, is expected to testify for the better part of a week, according to his attorney.
A representative for the U.N. declined to comment.
An unusual development involved the death last June of Mr. Ashe, who had previously served as president of the U.N. General Assembly and as Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the U.N. Mr. Ashe had pleaded not guilty to filing false tax returns connected to the alleged bribes but had been engaged in plea negotiations with prosecutors when he died at his Westchester County, N.Y., home, according to court documents. The official cause was “traumatic asphyxia…while lifting a barbell on a bench.”
Mr. Ng, whose net worth prosecutors have pegged at nearly $2 billion, boasts high-level political connections from Beijing to Washington.
He is a member of the Chinese government’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In his Macau office he displays photos of himself with politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, according to a person who knows him. In 2001, Mr. Ng joined Donald Trump and other investors in a bid for a Macau casino license, documents and people familiar with the matter say.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump has said the president hadn’t been “seriously considering” the ultimately unsuccessful bid.
Mr. Ng’s attorneys have sought to portray their client, who rose from peasant roots in southern China, as a philanthropist, not a briber.
The defendant has been called “a human living Buddha” for his donations to disaster relief funds and children’s charities, according to a biography accompanying a 2011 prize from the World Peace Prize Awarding Council.