Two former presidents of the United Nations General Assembly came under embarrassing scrutiny on Friday during the corruption trial of a Hong Kong businessman, as an FBI agent testified about a $500,000 payment to Uganda’s sitting president.
The first week in the trial of China Energy Fund Committee’s secretary general Chi Ping Patrick Ho ended with blockbuster revelations of two former U.N. leaders: 68th President of the General Assembly John Ashe and 69th President of the General Assembly Sam Kutesa.
In 2015, ex-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara kicked off the anti-corruption crackdown at the United Nations by charging Ashe in a $1.3 billion bribery scheme. A related case ended in the conviction of Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng, but Ashe died of a weightlifting accident before he went to trial.
On Friday, a different jury in Manhattan heard a wiretapped phone call suggesting that Ashe also received payoffs from another Chinese benefactor: Ho.
In the phone call, Ho is speaking to disgraced ex-Global Sustainability Foundation director Sheri Yan, who pleaded guilty to bribing Ashe two years ago.
“Do you, have you made some contribution to him [Ashe]?” Yan asked Ho in the July 2014 phone call, after apologizing for her directness. “Because we always, you know, that’s what he needed, he needs.”
Ashe, who was also a former U.N. permanent representative for Antigua and Barbuda, needed the money, Yan said, because “his country is so small.”
“Yes, we already paid,” Ho replied.
After Yan pressed for a “major contribution,” Ho replied that “the problem is” he requires “give and take.”
The context of the conversation is unclear in the recording, and Ho is not charged with bribing Ashe.
Prosecutors played the recording for the jury to assess Ho’s “intent” and “knowledge” in his international business transactions.
That issue is paramount in the case against Ho, who admits paying $2 million to Chad’s President Idriss Deby and half a million to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – but denies an attempt to corrupt the men.
At the time, Ho led a think tank associated with Chinese energy giant CEFC, which by then had been a $41 billion company holding the 342nd spot on the Fortune 500 list. The energy giant had large operations in Asia and Europe and had its sights set on the African continent.
Kutesa, who is Uganda’s foreign minister, led the U.N. General Assembly between 2014 and 2015. His support for Uganda’s discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Act made him a controversial choice to lead the world peacekeeping body, and he had previously been accused of receiving kickbacks from the Irish company Tullow Oil.
A year after his U.N. leadership term ended, Kutesa and his wife Edith worked with Ho to bring CEFC to Uganda – for a price.
FBI agent Melissa Galicia showed the federal jury several emails showing the Kutesas prodding Ho for a sizeable donation to the Food Security and Sustainable Energy Foundation.
In a report marked “highly confidential” and “super urgent,” Ho told CEFC’s chairman of a request to “support the campaign fund of $500,000 to President Yoweri, it was also brought forward euphemistically by the party.”
By that time, any contribution to a Museveni’s campaign fund would have been superfluous. The incumbent Ugandan president already had won his fifth term in office in an election beset by allegations of widespread fraud and voting irregularities. Ho had discussed taking a CEFC delegation to attend the inauguration. Prosecutors entered several photos of Ho and Museveni into evidence.
Bank records showed the $500,000 transfer to the foundation, and emails show Edith Kutesa advising Ho that CEFC should consider purchasing banks in Uganda.
CEFC took the proposals seriously and considered purchasing Crane Bank, Bank Africa, and Barclays, which had been considering pulling out of the African continent, emails and other documents entered into evidence showed.
Prosecutors have not publicly filed any charges against the Kutesas. Ho is accused of money laundering, violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and related conspiracy counts.
Trial continues on Monday, and closing arguments are expected later in the week.