- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

NEW YORK | An unusually high number of vacancies in the U.N. inspector general’s office has left that body significantly understaffed, raising concerns about the world body’s ability to detect fraud and other abuses even as the workload has swelled to include a myriad of procurement contracts.

According to an internal audit made available to The Washington Times, about 80 jobs - 25 percent of the staff in the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) - have not been filled. The vacancies include several senior investigative posts.

“The committee’s main concern is that the high vacancy rate within [OIOS] will have an adverse impact on the capacity and ability of the office to accomplish its program of work,” wrote the auditors, members of the U.N. Independent Audit Advisory Committee (IAAC).

The auditors expressed “significant concern” that there is no permanent director of the Investigation Division, which has inherited 175 procurement-related cases from a recently shuttered unit, the U.N. Procurement Task Force, that reviewed contracts for the purchase of goods and services. That was on top of several hundred other open cases being probed by the OIOS.

The task force grew out of the so-called oil-for-food scandal, a $64 billion program that fed Iraqis from 1996 to 2003 but was riddled with kickbacks and other corruption that involved nearly $2 billion. Since its inception, the task force recovered or saved about $650 million. It was shut down on Dec. 31 at the demand of Russia and Singapore after investigators fingered U.N. officials from those countries for mismanagement and other abuses.

“We are studying the IAAC report carefully, and believe it raises serious issues,” said Mark Kornblau, U.S. Mission spokesman.

A Republican congressional staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said the loss of the procurement task force - in addition to the vacancies in OIOS - has seriously undermined U.N. oversight.

The watchdog agency and the auditors both faulted the U.N.’s byzantine hiring policy, which can delay hiring by nearly a year for some positions.

“Given the length of time that recruiting staff to posts appears to take, there is a risk that the program of work of the [OIOS] may not be accomplished, owing to insufficient staff capacity,” warned the auditing committee. “The committee believes that this is a serious concern in terms of the effectiveness of the office.”

OIOS acknowledged the slowdown.

“Any vacancy, whether it’s 10 [percent] or 20 percent, it is hampering the work of the office,” said Min Byung Kun, a senior OIOS aide. “It’s a universal truth, not just us.”

The OIOS was created nearly 15 years ago to investigate cases of waste, fraud, corruption, kickbacks, bid-fixing, mismanagement and similar problems within the U.N. bureaucracy. The office is based in New York, but has auditors and other professionals posted in all main duty stations and attached to several peacekeeping missions.

These investigations have proved to be a useful tool, saving or recovering for the organization nearly half a billion dollars.

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