By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A billionaire real estate developer from Macau spent years corrupting United Nations officials so they would support his effort to build a huge conference center in the gambling destination, a U.S. prosecutor said on Thursday at the start of Ng Lap Seng's bribery trial.
Ng, 69, who has pleaded not guilty, has been accused of funneling roughly $2 million of suspect payments to John Ashe, a former General Assembly president and ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda, and Francis Lorenzo, a former deputy U.N. ambassador from the Dominican Republic.
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Prosecutors said Ng hoped his bribes would attract support for his Sun Kian Ip Group to build a multibillion-dollar center that would host an annual gala for the U.N. Office for South-South Cooperation, which works with developing countries.
"This case is about the defendant's effort to corrupt the United Nations to get what he wanted," Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Zolkind told jurors during his opening statement. "He decided to cheat. He paid bribes to get an unfair advantage."
Tai Park, a lawyer for Ng, countered that it was actually U.N. ambassadors who sought Ng's help in financing the center and getting it built, through a public-private partnership.
"He did not bribe anyone, not a single cent," Park said. "It is a case about philanthropy. ... He openly and transparently gave financial support in every way he could for five years."
The trial could focus both on China's dealings with the United Nations, and on defense contentions that Ng's prosecution is a political ploy by the U.S. government to curb China's influence over developing countries.
Ng has sat on the Chinese government's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and in the 1990s was implicated but not charged in a fundraising scandal involving U.S. President Bill Clinton's re-election bid.
It took more than three days to find jurors for the possible four- to six-week trial in federal court in Manhattan, overseen by U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick.
Ng, who will hear testimony through a translator, has been free on $50 million bail, and allowed to live under 24-hour guard in a luxury Manhattan apartment.
Six others were charged, including Jeff Yin, who Zolkind called Ng's "right-hand man" and who has entered a guilty plea.
Lorenzo pleaded guilty to bribery and money laundering, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. He is expected to be a key witness against Ng.
Ashe was also charged, but died at home last June after dropping a barbell on his neck.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)