- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

NEW YORK — The United Nations yesterday struggled to explain why it will reimburse about $300,000 in legal fees accrued by Benon Sevan, the discredited former administrator of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

U.N. officials said they had promised to pay for Mr. Sevan’s lawyers in October 2004, well before he was found by the U.N.-sanctioned Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) to have steered contracts and personally benefited from his job.

The reimbursement was appropriate, they said earlier this week, because Mr. Sevan was being investigated for actions taken in his official capacity. It was also necessary, they added, to ensure that the recently retired Mr. Sevan continued to cooperate with the investigation.

They said the U.N. legal adviser had signed off on the expense, reported this week to total about $300,000.

“I will acknowledge it’s a big number,” said Mark Malloch Brown, the chief of staff to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. However, he said, Mr. Sevan had demanded reimbursement in exchange for his continued cooperation with the panel, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

“Mr. Sevan made it clear that if he was not reimbursed … he was going home to Cyprus,” Mr. Malloch Brown told reporters yesterday. “He didn’t see the need to subject himself to leaks and attacks.”

The Iraqi government yesterday protested the reimbursement and asked the Security Council to intervene in “this blatant misuse of the funds.”

“I am shocked and dismayed that the U.N. Secretariat has agreed to pay Benon Sevan’s legal fees from assets belonging to the Iraqi people,” said Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie.

The money to reimburse Mr. Sevan, as well as the $30 million to fund the official inquiry, comes from a fund set up with Iraqi oil revenues to administer the $64 billion oil-for-food program.

The IIC, meanwhile, questioned whether the reimbursement was necessary to win Mr. Sevan’s cooperation, saying it had allowed him to have an attorney present during questioning “as an exception” because he was subject to the most serious complaints.

“This exception was not motivated, as suggested by the United Nations’ statement, by a desire to induce Mr. Sevan to cooperate,” IIC spokesman Michael Holtzman said.

Next week, the IIC is to release the findings of its investigation into whether Kojo Annan, son of the secretary-general, helped steer a $60 million oil-for-food contract to his former employer, Cotecna Inspections SA of Switzerland.

Mr. Malloch Brown yesterday confirmed a report in the Financial Times that the secretary-general had met twice with Cotecna officials before the contract was awarded and once afterward, either socially or to discuss other matters.

Kojo Annan at first said he was a trainee at Cotecna in West Africa and left the firm in 1997, but the payments continued. The Financial Times said the payments reached $300,000, but it was not certain whether they were related to the Iraq program.

The Cotecna question is the scandal’s only direct connection to the elder Mr. Annan, and the panel’s findings could salvage his reputation or destroy it.

Mr. Annan, who has been deposed by IIC investigators at least three times, has retained a lawyer, said Mr. Malloch Brown, who added that the top U.N. official is paying his own legal expenses.

Mr. Malloch Brown, who was hired three months ago as chief of staff to Mr. Annan, said the United Nations became unhappy about reimbursing Mr. Sevan after he was accused by the panel of profiting from his influence.

“A commitment was given last year when my predecessor and the secretary-general affirmed to Mr. Sevan that until proven guilty he could be helped,” Mr. Malloch Brown told reporters. “The panel did conclude he was not fully cooperative. Those two issues are exactly why he is not currently being paid.”

If Mr. Sevan is paid, the organization could sue him for reimbursement if he is found by a court to be guilty of wrongdoing.

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