A Chinese billionaire was portrayed as a criminal and a hero during opening statements at his United Nations bribery trial on Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Zolkind told Manhattan federal court jurors that 69-year-old Ng Lap Seng corrupted two U.N. ambassadors so he could build a legacy by constructing a massive U.N. conference center in China.
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Defense attorney Tai Park countered that Ng was a philanthropist willing to spend billions of dollars to build the center in Macau to benefit the U.N. before being betrayed by one of the ambassadors who requested contributions from him.
"Mr. Ng acted in good faith at all times," Park said. "He did not bribe anyone, not a single cent."
Park said Ng's actions were consistent with how the U.N. operates with public-private partnerships and he was being vilified after a heroic gesture of philanthropy.
"That's not bribery, whether it's the United Nations, this court, this country or Mars," Park said. "That's philanthropy!"
Zolkind said Ng paid at least $1.7 million in bribes to ambassadors including a former U.N. General Assembly president so his company would get U.N. approval to develop the center.
He said jurors will hear testimony about bribes from Francis Lorenzo, who was paid $1.5 million over a five-year period to head a Manhattan-based media company for Ng when he served as a diplomat from the Dominican Republic to the United Nations.
But Park said of the $240,000 paid annually to Lorenzo, who was the company's president: "It's called wages, ladies and gentlemen, not bribes."
Zolkind said Ng began sending Lorenzo an extra $30,000 a month in late 2012 "for the express purpose of obtaining U.N. approval for the conference center."
Meanwhile, Ng paid a $200,000 bribe in 2014 to John Ashe while he was General Assembly president and U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda and paid $2,500 monthly to Ashe's wife to perform a no-show job at the Manhattan media company, the prosecutor said.
Park said Ashe, who died in an accident last year, had requested the $200,000 to support his presidency.
"It didn't go into his back pocket," Park said. "It was put to good use."
Park said payments to Ashe's wife, an expert on global climate change, came as she worked on a book about how developing nations contribute to climate change and are impacted by it.
The defense lawyer also countered Zolkind's claims that Ng hoped to build luxury condominiums and other businesses to benefit from the conference center by saying it will be clear to jurors that Ng had embarked on a quest that had no realistic hope of profit.
"If he breaks even before he's dead, he's a lucky man," Park said.
Zolkind said the conference center was never built because Ng was arrested in September 2015 before he could capitalize on U.N. documents listing his company as the developer.
Ng has been confined under 24-hour guard in a luxury Manhattan apartment on $50 million bail while awaiting trial.