Thursday, December 14, 2006

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, reacting to an article in The Washington Times, asked U.N. investigators yesterday to look into claims of fraud, favoritism and intimidation inside the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The DESA division, responsible for promoting accountability and good governance in member states, has used contributions from the Italian government to fund duplicative programs and unnecessary consultants, many of which benefit Italy or its nationals, The Times reported.

The story also said the department had made unusual use of contractors and taken relevant information off its Web site after reporters began asking questions. It said DESA staffers have complained about intimidation.

“The secretary-general’s office has asked [the Office of Internal Oversight Services] to look into allegations raised this morning in the press,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for Mr. Annan. He refused to specify which areas Mr. Annan is concerned about.

On Monday evening, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations transmitted a letter to the U.N.’s chief internal inspector, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, asking OIOS to look into contracting improprieties and reports that staff had been intimidated in an effort to halt leaks.

U.S. officials also have received information that officials within DESA’s in-house human resources department have been destroying documents related to contracts issued by the department in recent years.

“We have become aware of alleged improprieties relating to the award of consulting contracts by the Division for Public Administration and Development Management,” wrote U.S. diplomat Mark Wallace, whose letter was copied to Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown. DPADM is a subdivision within DESA.

“We have also received reports alleging that the DPADM has threatened to retaliate against staff members who have brought this matter to light,” said the letter, which urged OIOS to conduct a “comprehensive review.”

“We consider this an important and urgent matter,” the letter said.

A spokesman said Ms. Ahlenius was traveling but expected back in New York next week.

The Italian government, which has voluntarily contributed some $80 million to DESA over the last four years, has not requested an audit of its funds. The Italian Mission to the United Nations did not respond to calls for comments yesterday.

Sources within the United Nations have described an atmosphere of uncertainty and intimidation inside DPADM, which has been responsible for creating several international programs and centers of dubious value.

“I have no comment beyond what the spokesman said this morning,” said Marie Oveissi, the officer in charge of DESA’s Technical Cooperation Management Services section.

DPADM Director Guido Bertucci did not respond to calls yesterday.

News of the DPADM use of Italian money prompted anger on Capitol Hill.

Retiring Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, who as chairman of the House International Relations Committee held numerous hearings on the oil-for-food scandal and other U.N. issues, yesterday demanded “transparent investigations that hold violators of the public trust responsible for their misconduct.”

“I am aware of new reports of corruption and cronyism within the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs,” he said. “The U.N. has a history of building scandals on top of its scandals. Mismanagement thrives under poor oversight, which is then often lost under attempted cover-ups.”

OIOS has already conducted an investigation into a DESA center in Thessaloniki, Greece, after the Greek government demanded to know how its $5 million contribution was being spent. Athens has since shut the center down, saying that its effectiveness was undercut by a duplicative effort based in Naples.

That report will not be released until at least January, OIOS officials said recently, because DESA officials have not yet responded to an early draft. Some have suggested that the department is deliberately delaying the report’s release, at least until Mr. Annan is succeeded by Ban Ki-moon.

“I will leave the interpretation to you, but clearly in any … investigative process, people have a right to rebut,” Mr. Dujarric said yesterday. “That needs to be done within a certain amount of time.

“The department in question has a right to answer the issues raised. We very much hope it will be completed very soon.”

The spokesman added: “We of course expect that no documents in any department will be destroyed. There are rules and regulations regarding the destruction of documents which are public.”

Mr. Dujarric also said that staff members who feel intimidated can avail themselves of the U.N. whistle-blower protections, which include the right to file complaints anonymously.

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