- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

UNITED NATIONS | The leader of the agency that is supposed to root out corruption in the United Nations stepped down Wednesday with no successor in sight, adding to fears that the U.N. is becoming less capable of policing itself.

With the departure of Inga-Britt Ahlenius, head of the Office of Internal Oversight Services for the past five years, three of the agency’s four top jobs are unfilled.

American and U.N. officials, and watchdog groups are concerned that the U.N. is compromising its ability to prevent another scandal like the $1.8 billion bilked from the U.N.-run oil-for-food program in Iraq.

“The United States has consistently and aggressively pushed for a strong and independent Office of Internal Oversight Services to uncover fraud, waste and mismanagement at the U.N., but we are disappointed with the recent performance of its investigations division,” said Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N.

“We have been crystal clear with the U.N. at the highest levels that the coming change in OIOS leadership must bring about a significant improvement in its performance to increase oversight and transparency throughout the organization,” he told the AP.

Interviews with OIOS officials and documents uncovered in Associated Press investigations portray a demoralized office whose staff lacks confidence in the management’s leadership.

Despite a General Assembly resolution in December urging Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure that a successor was appointed before Ms. Ahlenius‘ term expired, none has been named and no indication has been given of when that will happen.

Asked by AP about the prospects for replacing Ms. Ahlenius, Angela Kane, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for management, said July 1 that “a very intensive search” is under way.

Ms. Ahlenius declined interview requests and said by e-mail she will submit her end-of-assignment report to Mr. Ban on Wednesday, her last day on the job.

Another OIOS leadership position — the directorship of its investigative division — has been vacant since 2006. That unit’s investigators were told, in a document obtained by the AP, not to open cases of financial fraud or corruption involving U.N. vendors or former staff — a reversal of past policy.

Separately, they were ordered not to follow up on or to quickly close out investigations already launched by the U.N. Procurement Task Force when it operated from 2006 through 2008, according to OIOS officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they said they feared reprisals.

The Procurement Task Force, set up in the wake of the oil-for-food case, was headed by Robert Appleton, a veteran former U.S. federal prosecutor who was special counsel for that inquiry. It was disbanded at the end of 2008 under pressure from some governments that protested findings of wrongdoing involving citizens or companies from their nations.

The General Assembly had directed Mr. Ban and Ms. Ahlenius to ensure that the task force’s caseload and capacities were transferred to OIOS‘ investigation division.

But since the start of 2009, the U.N. under Mr. Ban has cut back sharply on investigations into corruption and fraud within its ranks, shelving cases involving allegations of theft or misuse of millions of dollars, an AP investigation in January showed.

Many of the Procurement Task Force’s completed investigations included urgent recommendations to turn over evidence to prosecutors in the countries concerned, but Mr. Ban’s office rarely did so. The U.N. has no prosecutorial powers.

Since the start of 2009, Mr. Ban’s office has referred one major case outside the U.N., according to U.N. officials, diplomats and figures supplied to AP by the U.N.’s legal office. Some major reports also remain sealed from public view, for no publicly stated reasons.

Last month, when asked by the AP to respond to the allegations and detail the U.N.’s anti-corruption efforts, Mr. Ban replied only that “addressing corruption as a way of enhancing good governance — that is a very important area — the United Nations is putting emphasis on that.”

However, David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general who now chairs the U.N.’s Independent Audit Advisory Committee, told AP he fears OIOS will be relegated to “a caretaker status” under the temporary oversight of the U.N.’s legal chief, Patricia O’Brien.

“Frankly, my bigger concern now is the leadership vacuum that exists in OIOS because Ahlenius‘ term ends this month, and it’s very unclear what the status of the search is for a successor,” said Mr. Walker, whose committee advises the General Assembly on accountability issues.

“And, furthermore, the heads for the investigation division and the evaluation and inspections division are still open,” Mr. Walker said. “There are recommendations that have been pending with the secretary-general’s office for an extended period of time — and just no response whatsoever.”