UNITED NATIONS, March 29 (Reuters) - A United Nations task force has recommended in a report released on Tuesday an overhaul of the office of the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly in the wake of a U.S. investigation into an alleged bribery scheme involving a former head of the assembly.
U.S. prosecutors since October have charged seven people for participating in a scheme that involved the payment of more than $1.3 million in bribes to John Ashe, former U.N. Ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda and president of the General Assembly in 2013-14, from Chinese businessmen, including Ng Lap Seng, a billionaire Macau real estate developer.
In addition to requesting an audit, due to published soon, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set up a task force to make recommendations on how to improve transparency at the office of the Assembly president, a rotating post filled annually by different member states.
“The allegations involving the president, which have tarnished the image and reputation of the (U.N.), occurred in an environment where there were significant loopholes and blind spots in the operational arrangements for the president and the office,” the report said.
“Despite the high level of visibility of the office, there are insufficient transparency and accountability measures,” it said.
The assembly president is not a U.N. employee.
The task force noted problems with the office’s funding, saying its operating budget has remained unchanged at $326,000 since 1998, apart from inflation adjustments. As a result, presidents could seek funds via “cash and in-kind contributions from member states and non-United Nations entities.”
These funding arrangements have no systematic oversight, it said.
The task force recommended developing a set of core ethical principles that assembly presidents would commit to as well as financial disclosures to be made at the beginning and end of a General Assembly president’s term.
It recommended that the Assembly require its presidents to regularly disclose travel and other expenses and that at least one permanent staffing position be created to ensure continuity from one presidency to the next.
Earlier this month, Francis Lorenzo, a suspended deputy U.N. Ambassador from the Dominican Republic, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities.
Two other defendants pleaded guilty, Sheri Yan and Heidi Hong Piao. Julia Vivi Wang, the newest defendant, has not yet entered a plea.
Ashe, Ng and Jeff Yin, Ng’s assistant, pleaded not guilty.
A spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined comment on the report. (Additional reporting by Nate Raymond, editing by G Crosse)