Tuesday, August 9, 2005

NEW YORK — A former U.N. procurement officer was released on bail yesterday after pleading guilty to accepting nearly $1 million in bribes in connection with the corrupt Iraq oil-for-food program.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan hours earlier had lifted Alexander Yakovlev’s diplomatic immunity in response to a request by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said his chief of staff.

Mr. Yakovlev was the first U.N. official indicted in the scandal, which is being investigated by federal prosecutors, several congressional panels and a U.N. commission headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

He pleaded guilty to counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering and was released later on $400,000 bond. He faces up to 20 years in prison for each count.

The Volcker commission, in an interim report yesterday, said Mr. Yakovlev had “engaged in a continuous course of conduct of accepting payments from U.N. contractors,” going back to at least 2000.

Investigators working for the Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) said they long have suspected kickbacks in the organization’s procurement department, but were only able to identify Mr. Yakovlev this spring.

Mr. Yakovlev, a Russian national, abruptly resigned from the organization in June, but like all officials was covered by diplomatic immunity for the period he worked for the organization.

The U.N. inspector general’s office discovered the kickbacks during its own investigations and tipped off federal prosecutors, said Mark Malloch Brown, Mr. Annan’s chief of staff.

“Mr. Yakovlev purposefully participated in a corrupt scheme to solicit a bribe” from Societe Generale de Surveillance S.A., or SGS, one of six companies competing for the oil-inspection contract that ultimately was awarded to Seybold, a Dutch firm.

The report also says Mr. Yakovlev “provided confidential bid information, internal assessments and selection consideration to SGS,” conduct that violates both the U.N. Charter and internal procurement rules.

Working with an outside partner, Yves Pintore of France, he is said to have attempted to extract kickbacks from SGS, as well as other companies that were working with peacekeeping missions and other U.N. agencies.

Also yesterday, the IIC, which is funded by the United Nations from the same oil-for-food program it is investigating, released a final accounting of purported wrongdoing by Benon Sevan, the former executive director of the $64 billion aid program.

Federal prosecutors also have shown an interest in Mr. Sevan, who is thought to be in Cyprus.

Mr. Sevan is accused by the panel of pocketing about $145,000 from steering oil contracts to a small oil company owned by a friend, Efraim Nadler, who is the brother-in-law of former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Investigators traced in elaborate detail the cluster of money transfers, telephone calls and travel they say links Mr. Sevan’s attempts to win oil vouchers for the African Middle East Petroleum Co. Ltd. Inc. of Geneva and his work on the oil-for-food program.

On Sunday, Mr. Sevan resigned from his $1-a-year post as a U.N. adviser, a job Mr. Malloch Brown said required little beyond cooperating with members of the Volcker panel. By quitting, the Cypriot national will lose the G4 visa that allows him to stay in the United States, and the move will conclude the internal disciplinary proceedings against him.

Mr. Sevan has not cooperated with the IIC for several months, Mr. Volcker said yesterday.

Yesterday’s report brings more color to the accusations against Mr. Sevan, detailing a “precarious” financial picture that may have pushed Mr. Sevan into questionable side deals.

When the oil-for-food program started in early 1997, Mr. Sevan and his wife, Micheline, who works in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, were pulling in $129,524 and $69,243, respectively, plus allowances and benefits, tax-free.

But after paying monthly expenses, including a Long Island mortgage ($1,574), Manhattan rent ($4,370), car payments ($500) and a credit-card cash advance, the couple often dipped into overdraft protection for their checking accounts, IIC investigators said.

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