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Former UN chief Ban Ki-moon speaks during a news conference upon his arrival at the Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji(reuters_tickers)
By David Ingram and Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A scandal that could complicate the South Korean political ambitions of former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon features an unlikely central character: a New York fashion designer whose wedding was broadcast on reality TV and who authorities said falsely touted ties to Middle Eastern royalty.
Malcolm Harris, who has dubbed himself on social media the "curator of cool," was indicted in a U.S. federal court this week along with two of Ban's relatives in connection with an alleged international bribery scheme. Harris double-crossed the others and walked away with $500,000, prosecutors said.
Harris faces arrest on the charges, but it is not clear if U.S. authorities know his whereabouts. He told Reuters in a Facebook message on Thursday that he was hiring a lawyer and would not comment on the allegations or his location. "I would appreciate your patience," he said.
Harris' husband posted on Instagram this week from Mexico but did not indicate if Harris was with him.
The case has roiled Ban's plans to run for president of South Korea after completing his term at the United Nations two weeks ago. Ban, who is not accused of wrongdoing, has said he knew nothing of the case and that he plans to decide soon on his political future.
Harris, 52, moves in different circles. His wedding, held on a fashion runway, was featured in 2012 on the Bravo TV network in an episode labeled online as "Matrimony Fierce."
He frequently writes on cultural topics for the Huffington Post, where his profile as an independent contributor described him as a "creative consultant, cultural icon, and art world aficionado."
Fashion publications have said his famous friends include Madonna, that he studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and that he has lived in Paris and Tokyo.
He sold three dresses to Angelina Jolie, despite having twice hung up on her phone calls after mistakenly thinking it was a prankster, the celebrity TV show Access Hollywood reported in 2009.
In 2005, he told the Washington Post that as much as he "adored" the fashion business, he had become fed up with celebrities "mooching" free clothing from designers.
ALLEGED TIES TO ROYALTY
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Harris ran into trouble after he told false tales about connections to Middle Eastern royalty.
Central to the case is a 72-story skyscraper complex in Vietnam built at a cost of $1 billion. In 2014, the South Korean construction firm Keangnam Enterprises Co Ltd, facing a liquidity crisis, was interested in selling the complex, an indictment released on Tuesday said.
Harris heard about the possible deal through Joo Hyun Bahn, a real estate broker who is a nephew of the former U.N. secretary-general and whose father was a Keangnam executive, the indictment said.
According to prosecutors, Harris offered to help arrange a sale to a sovereign wealth fund through his claimed connections to Middle Eastern royalty. All he needed, he said, was a commission for himself and money to pay bribes to a Middle Eastern official, according to the indictment.
But Harris had no such connections, and after he persuaded the other men to send $500,000 to his company, Muse Creative Consulting LLC, to pay bribes as a middle man, he kept the money, the indictment said.
Harris even forged emails that appeared to be from the Middle Eastern official demanding bribes, the indictment said.
He spent the money on airfare, hotels, lavish meals, furniture, rent for a Manhattan apartment and a six-month lease for a penthouse in the fashionable Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, the indictment said.
Joo Hyun Bahn was arrested on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty. His father, Ban Ki-sang, who is Ban Ki-moon's younger brother, was also charged and remains at large.
Harris, who faces charges that include wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, faces a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison and a maximum of 32 years if convicted.
The year before the alleged scheme, Harris compared himself in an interview to a character from "Scandal," a TV drama about a former White House aide who becomes a crisis manager for the rich and powerful.
"People come to me when they have the perfect life, but they want to make it better - when they know that there is something missing," he told Whitewall art magazine in 2013.
(Editing by Noeleen Walder and Matthew Lewis)