- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

NEW YORK — U.N. officials acknowledge their internal investigation failed to produce evidence against a U.N. procurement officer who was convicted of taking kickbacks in federal court last week, and say U.N. oversight procedures still must be improved.

Former Commodity Procurement Section chief Sanjaya Bahel was found guilty on Thursday of steering $100 million worth of communications and other contracts to a Miami businessman in exchange for discounted real estate and cash.

Bahel, a 57-year-old Indian national, faces up to 30 years in prison. He maintained his innocence to the end, pointing to internal U.N. investigations that appeared to exonerate him.

“This was a witch hunt,” Bahel attorney Richard Herman told the court. “This is an effort to clean up the bad public relations the United Nations suffered in the past few years.”

U.N. officials deny that either of two internal investigations exonerated Bahel but acknowledged that their first probe was not “thorough enough.”

A second investigation by a newly created procurement task force produced an 86-page dossier on complex transactions involving at least two Indian-owned companies and was forwarded to the federal prosecutor’s office for the Southern District of New York.

Inga-Britt Ahlenius, head of the U.N. watchdog office, was hard-pressed to explain why the first investigation did not point to any wrongdoing in Bahel’s unit.

But she noted that her department, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, has established a unit devoted to procurement and is reviewing 140 contracts with a total value of $1 billion — representing half the value of all U.N. contracts.

“The recent events — and also the number of cases which have required investigation — really shows it’s difficult to place any reliance on internal controls in the organization when it comes to procurement,” Miss Ahlenius told reporters late last week. “There is a need for a major overhaul in the procurement system of the United Nations.”

Bahel is the second procurement official to be convicted in federal court in the U.S.

Alexander Yakovlev, a Russian national, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering last year and is awaiting sentencing. His actions were uncovered by the oil-for-food investigation, even though they had nothing to do with the Iraq program.

Bahel’s direct supervisor, Andrew Toh of Singapore, has been suspended with pay for more than a year pending the outcome of an investigation by the U.N. procurement task force. U.S. prosecutors are looking into his case but have not brought charges.

Investigators said one problem with the established procurement framework is that the rules assume the organization is dealing with honest companies.

“The U.N. is a victim by a number of these cases,” said Robert Appleton, director of the procurement task force, which was created in January 2006. “Sometimes [wrongdoers] find a willing participant within the organization, sometimes they make false representations, or use front companies” to get contracts or inside information.

He and Miss Ahlenius said the U.N. procurement system — run by a sprawling department that last year spent nearly $2 billion on goods and services, including those for far-flung peacekeeping missions — was set up on the assumption that companies seeking to do business with the United Nations would function honestly. That is not the case, as they have learned.

Procurement irregularities are complex and difficult for the United Nations to investigate, Mr. Appleton said. The organization does not have the power to compel testimony from member states, private companies or even, to some extent, U.N. employees.

“We cannot compel witnesses; we don’t have search warrants,” he said. “We now have numerous cases involving vendors and contractors around the world.”

Mr. Appleton said that the procurement task force has identified several schemes, including 20 to 25 “large type cases,” that could be referred to national prosecutors either in New York or abroad.

The U.N. General Assembly has had a procurement reform package before it since the middle of last year, but members have delayed action at least until September.

As with many reform and money-related issues, the wealthier nations are vigorously advocating reform while the developing nations are concerned about erosion of their influence within the system.

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