Kickback probe targets chief of U.N. program

Kickback probe targets chief of U.N. program

March 18, 2004

By Betsy Pisik

NEW YORK — The United Nations has begun an internal investigation into
accusations that a prominent U.N. official took kickbacks from the
multibillion-dollar Iraqi oil-for-food program that ended last year. The
accusations have also prompted U.S. congressional concern. The General
Accounting Office, which has been examining Iraq’s finances since May,
is preparing to brief staffers of the House International Relations
Committee tomorrow afternoon.

“There are important implications here in how the U.N. operates that are
vitally important to the oversight committees of the House and Senate,”
said committee spokesman Sam Stratman.

Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, “wants to pull
together information about the extent of this problem to determine the
options the committee has for proceeding,” he said.

Benon Sevan, the executive director of the Office of the Iraq Program at
the United Nations, is accused by some Iraqi officials of accepting oil
vouchers from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The charges are based on papers
found in the Ministry of Oil listing kickbacks and bribes.

Some 270 people, organizations and corporations were subsequently
accused of taking bribes by an Iraqi newspaper, though the claims have
not been authenticated. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Mr. Sevan in the
list has fueled long-held suspicions about the U.N. program, which sold
more than $60 billion worth of oil in 6 years.

According to reports published in Iraq, Mr. Sevan, a native of Cyprus,
received a voucher for 1.8 million barrels of Iraqi oil. At today’s
prices, the oil would be worth more than $67 million. Presumably the
bearer of the voucher could claim the oil, or consign it to a middleman
and pocket the proceeds when it was sold.

Mr. Sevan, currently on vacation and about to retire, has denied all
accusations through a U.N. spokesman.

The U.N. Inspector General’s Office, known as the Office of Internal
Oversight Services (OIOS), has begun an investigation into whether Mr.
Sevan or other U.N. officials accepted gifts or bribes from Saddam’s regime.

U.S. diplomats say they have stressed to U.N. officials that “they had
better take this investigation seriously.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has considered whether to request a
separate investigation, looking broadly into the program as a whole and
various governments’ manipulation of it. That would likely require the
approval of the Security Council and the General Assembly.

“We’ve begun the investigation, and so far it is procedural,” said one
U.N. official of the Sevan accusations. “There are allegations, which
you have to find out about, to understand. That’s where we are now.”

The office sent formal letters seeking assistance to the Iraqi Governing
Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority in mid-February, but
received a positive response from L. Paul Bremer’s office only on Tuesday.

OIOS “is looking for information. They’re asking us for records, and
Bremer is looking for them. We’re absolutely interested in helping the
U.N. in their investigation,” said a U.S. official.

Mr. Sevan is in Australia, according to U.N. officials, where he is
taking two months’ vacation. He is expected to return to U.N.
headquarters for about a week in April, then retire.

As the executive director of the U.N. Office of the Iraq Program since
it was established in 1997, Mr. Sevan narrowly escaped injury when the
U.N. offices in Baghdad were bombed last summer.

He has served in the U.N. system for most of his adult life.

Among his previous positions, he has been U.N. security coordinator,
deputy head of the department of political affairs, assistant director
of administration and management, and head of conference services.

Mr. Sevan spent much of 1988 through 1991 in Afghanistan and Pakistan,
monitoring the withdrawal of Soviet troops and overseeing U.N.
operations in the region.