- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

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 todays 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.

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