NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Chinese government official was involved in discussions about using a news outlet that U.S. authorities believe was part of a bribery scheme at the United Nations to push positive stories about China, according to court papers.
The filing by federal prosecutors in Manhattan elaborated on their recent claims that Chinese officials were involved in developing New York-based South-South News, an English-language media outfit focused on the U.N. and development issues.
South-South News has in the past said it offered objective news coverage without the involvement of any government.
Prosecutors have claimed Macau billionaire real estate developer Ng Lap Seng used South-South News, which he founded, to funnel a portion of $500,000 in bribes he paid to former U.N. General Assembly President John Ashe.
Wednesday’s filing described a 2010 email from an unnamed individual affiliated with China’s State Council Information Office, China’s propaganda arm, to a business associate of Ng’s with a draft letter for the billionaire to sign.
The letter, written in Ng’s name, said South-South News could be used “to display China’s soft power, counter malicious, distorted news by anti-China forces, and let the whole world hear a true voice that comes from China to understand the real China.”
The letter called Ng the chairman of South-South News, a U.N.-accredited news group, and noted he belonged to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a government advisory board.
Prosecutors have not said Chinese officials knew of any bribes connected with South-South News. In a statement, South-South News, which has denied connections to the Chinese government, said it had no knowledge of the issues prosecutors detailed.
But in the filing, prosecutors reasserted previously-made arguments that the Chinese link may mean that one of Ng’s lawyers, Hugh Mo, had a potential conflict of interest because of his previous work for the Chinese government.
Lawyers for Ng, who has pleaded not guilty, did not respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors contend Ashe, a former U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served as General Assembly president from 2013 to 2014, took $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese businessmen, including Ng. Ashe died in June.
Ashe, who was before his death one of seven people charged over the scheme, was accused of taking over $500,000 from Ng, 68, in exchange for building support for a U.N.-sponsored conference center that Ng’s company, Sun Kian Ip Group, would develop.
The bribes included a $2,500-per-month job for Ashe’s wife at South-South News, prosecutors said.
Due to the case, the United Nations is reviewing South-South News’ accreditation.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Andrew Hay