Friday, July 2, 2004

Former U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer dismissed charges that he tried to block an investigation in the $10 billion U.N. oil-for-food scandal as “utter and complete nonsense.”

Mr. Bremer, who relinquished his post as the supreme authority in Iraq on Monday, said in an interview Thursday that he moved quickly to secure all records in Baghdad relating to the scandal and acted to head off what he said was a politicized investigation of the probe by the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council.

“It became clear to me that the investigation should be conducted by a nonpolitical body and the Governing Council was clearly thinking in terms of a political investigation,” Mr. Bremer told reporters and editors of The Washington Times during an interview conducted at the Old Executive Office Building.

Mr. Bremer added, “The idea that I somehow stood in the way of this is utter and complete nonsense.”

The General Accounting Office estimated earlier this year that Saddam Hussein’s regime stole some $10.1 billion in illegal sales, kickbacks and padded contracts under the oil-for-food program.

The seven-year U.N. program, which formally closed down in November, was set up to allow the Saddam regime, laboring under punishing international sanctions, to obtain food and humanitarian aid through the tightly controlled sale of Iraqi oil.

But the program was plagued from the start by poor oversight and outright cheating, and has blossomed into the biggest financial scandal in the history of the United Nations.

At least one top U.N. oil-for-food executive is among the hundreds of companies and individuals accused of profiteering under the program.

Control of the sensitive investigation has become a much disputed political football, with the United Nations, three congressional committees and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York all among those probing the scandal.

In Baghdad, Mr. Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) clashed repeatedly with the Governing Council’s Ahmed Chalabi, a one-time U.S. protege, for control of the oil-for-food investigation.

In April, Mr. Bremer cut short a probe begun by Mr. Chalabi, who was chairman of the council’s finance committee, and the international accounting firm KPMG. He said in the interview he wanted the investigation to be run by the Board of Supreme Audit, an independent body of auditors which had operated during Saddam’s reign.

The audit board then held its own expedited bid process, awarding the bulk of the investigation work to Ernst & Young, another major international accounting firm, on May 13.

Critics have said that Mr. Bremer’s actions short-circuited the investigation, and may have been intended to shield the United Nations from criticism at a time when the Bush administration was desperately seeking international support in Iraq.

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican and chairman of a House Government Reform Committee aggressively probing the U.N. program, told Mr. Bremer in a letter this week that the CPA had given an “incomplete” answer to congressional requests for an inventory of oil-for-food documents.

But Mr. Bremer in the interview said the Board of Supreme Audit had secured “tens of thousands of boxes” of relevant material at his direction, and that all the documents had been safeguarded in Baghdad for inspection by the U.N. investigators, U.S. government experts and other “legitimate” bodies.

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