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Oct 9, 2015 12:45 AM

UN high post, ensnared in alleged bribe case, ripe for risk

The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) This is how a former president of the U.N. General Assembly, arrested this week in an alleged bribery scheme, paid himself, the criminal complaint says: John Ashe accepted more than $3 million from foreign governments and individuals, signed checks to himself and wrote on them "Salary."

Ashe's attorney denied charges against his client, but those alleged actions have exposed a weakness in the world body that, so far, no one is rushing to reform.

The post of General Assembly president, representing 193 member states, is fertile ground for misconduct. The president can hold other jobs at the same time and doesn't have to disclose them; has full discretion over the office's U.N.-allocated annual budget of about $330,000; and can accept additional money from member states without having to tell anyone.

There's also no formal U.N. vetting for the job.

"It's fascinating; my first reaction is that you are giving a free pass for an internal lobbyist," said Alejandro Salas, Transparency International's regional director for the Americas. He said his organization has never done what he called a "risk map" for the United Nations, but he added, "We will need to focus attention now."

Ashe, a former diplomat for Antigua and Barbuda, is accused by a U.S. prosecutor of turning the world body into a "platform for profit" by accepting bribes from a billionaire Chinese real estate mogul and other businesspeople to pave the way for lucrative investments. Ashe faces tax fraud charges. He held the presidency from September 2013 to September 2014.

Ashe's lawyer, Robert Van Lierop, has said he expects his client to be vindicated, adding that Ashe "enjoys a sterling reputation."

On Thursday, the U.N. announced that its internal watchdog would audit the U.N.'s interaction with two foundations whose leaders are linked to the case.

These are "initial steps," spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

That same watchdog, the Office for Internal Oversight Services, once raised the alarm about the outside money the General Assembly president can accept: "The lack of transparency concerning such funds may pose a reputational risk for the organization," a 2010 report warned.

Ashe sought to bring in nearly 10 times the amount of U.N. money budgeted for his office, the criminal complaint says. It says he pursued outside support, on one occasion "outlining his official powers as the expected UNGA president" and his goal of "soliciting more than $3 million for his presidency."

The president of the General Assembly is a post both largely ceremonial and highly visible. He or she meets with heads of state or government, as Ashe did with President Barack Obama in 2013. He or she also has better access to top U.N. officials like Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon than the average diplomat.

In response to the Ashe case, U.N. officials have said the General Assembly president is not a U.N. official and answers instead to his government, as well as the member states who elected him.

But that argument doesn't hold up with outside experts. "I think the common public view is that the president of the General Assembly is a central U.N. figure and organizational figure," said Robert Appleton, a New York lawyer who chaired a special anti-corruption unit, the Procurement Task Force, that the U.N. closed in 2009 under pressure from member states.

"When the U.N. splits hairs to say, 'They're not subject to our authority,' I don't think that argument resonates with the general public at all," he said.

The General Assembly president receives staffers, security, office space, IT support and more from the U.N., in addition to the annual budget. The U.N. even established a trust fund, open to contributions from countries and other entities, meant for presidents from poorer countries that don't have the means to support their countryman in the post.

Ashe didn't appear to have that problem; the criminal complaint says he reported receiving six-figure amounts from Antigua and Barbuda's government during his presidency.

It is not clear how much the U.N. trust fund contains or who has contributed. U.N. Controller Bettina Bartsiotas, who is supposed to report periodically on the trust fund, did not respond to a call for comment.

Appleton said Ashe's case reminds him of the way the U.N. first responded after its vast scandal involving its oil-for-food program with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

Instead of saying there's no way to investigate, he said, the U.N. should find one, just as it did when it created his short-lived anti-corruption unit. "There isn't a history of any member state policing its own diplomats," he said.

Questions around the General Assembly presidency don't end with Ashe. The man who followed him in the post and completed his term about a month ago, Sam Kutesa, held on to his job as Uganda's foreign minister, raising concerns about how he could handle two demanding jobs at once.

Kutesa also has ties to one of the people accused of giving Ashe bribes, Sheri Yan, who was an adviser to Ashe during his presidency. Kutesa's wife, Edith, is listed as a vice chairman of an organization Yan founded, the Global Sustainability Foundation. It is one of the two now being looked at by the U.N. watchdog.

The foundation, whose promotional materials say it launched at U.N. headquarters last year, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Both the new president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, and the U.N. secretary-general's office appear to be leaving any reforms to others. "As to how the member states want to handle and manage the office of the presidency, it's up to them," Dujarric, the spokesman, told reporters.

Brett Schaefer, a fellow with the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, considered that a risky stance, "especially in an environment like the U.N., with 193 countries with 193 different moral views of corruption."


Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.


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