UNITED NATIONS, March 30 -- The U.N.'s top elections official, Carina Perelli, presided over a department whose leadership tolerated sexual harassment, misused office funds and engaged in favoritism, a confidential management review of the electoral assistance division says.
The findings delivered a fresh blow to the United Nations' credibility when it is reeling from an investigation into sexual misconduct in peacekeeping missions and corruption and mismanagement of the $64 billion oil-for-food program.
They also tainted the reputation of a senior U.N. official who has been praised by the United States and other countries for helping to carry out recent elections in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. President Bush singled out Perelli's support in Iraq in his State of the Union address.
The review, conducted by a Swiss consulting firm, said Perelli's current and former employees described the unit's working atmosphere as "abusive" and "offensive." One staff member characterized the elections division as an "unhealthy family."
Kieran Prendergast, the United Nations' undersecretary general for political affairs, ordered the review in December after some of the division's staff complained of management shortcomings. The review's authors concluded that the division's problems were "much more serious" than anticipated.
Prendergast declined through his spokesman to comment on the report's assertion that he had clashed with Perelli over the U.N. role in Iraq's elections. Prendergast advocated a limited U.N. presence in Iraq after the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, while Perelli had pressed for more elections workers.
The United Nations' chief spokesman told reporters that Prendergast is conducting "a preliminary investigation" into the allegations, first reported Monday by the London-based Arab language daily Asharq al Awsat.
The 22-page report, based on interviews with 29 current and former employees, said Perelli was "admired for her personal courage, for her knowledge of the issues and her willingness to share that knowledge."
But it charges that she contributed to creating an "offensive" work environment in which staffers are subject to unwanted sexual advances and a "constant sexual innuendo is part of the fabric" of the unit's daily life.
Perelli, 48, of Uruguay, did not respond to a request for comment. Staff members said she felt she could act with impunity because she was one of the highest-ranking U.N. officials from the developing world.
The report said that Perelli essentially divided her office into an "inner circle" of employees who enjoyed special privileges and an "outer circle" subject to harsh treatment.
"Many staff have suffered emotionally as a result of the director's behavior," it said. They said working there "has been nothing short of a devastating experience and that the work environment of the division is abusive."
Perelli and members of the inner circle also spent unit resources to assign one political affairs officer and some secretaries to routinely run personal errands and pay their private bills, the report said.
The division also authorized money from U.N. election trust funds for "frequent unjustified travel" to Latin America. "There is a clear need for a formal investigation into the use of trust funds," the report said.