Russia Seeks to Thwart U.N. Task Force That Led Bribery Probes

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 -- Russia is seeking the ouster of a senior U.N. corruption investigator and his team of specialists on white-collar crimes after they conducted hard-hitting probes into one of its diplomats and another Russian national, according to U.S. officials and U.N. documents.

The move is aimed at thwarting efforts to retain members of the U.N. Procurement Task Force after its mandate expires at the end of the month. The United Nations had proposed integrating the task force into an expanded, permanent U.N. investigation division to strengthen the organization's capacity to investigate fraud.

U.S. officials said the Russian effort was part of a broader push by Moscow and members of the Group of 77 developing countries to kill off a unit that has carried out some of the organization's most aggressive investigations. The United States joined the European Union, South Korea and Switzerland on Tuesday in blocking the passage of a General Assembly resolution that would have placed restrictions on the task force members' ability to serve as permanent U.N. investigators.

"The U.S. deems it necessary that the U.N. maintain the possibility of drawing from the expertise of some of the members of the investigative task force," said Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "We are discouraged by certain countries' efforts to pass a resolution that would prohibit the hiring of these individuals."

But others said Russia was simply seeking to prevent U.N. bureaucrats from short-circuiting budgetary and hiring procedures by paying salaries for a dozen task force members with money designated for other purposes. They said the task force members, who serve as consultants, should be required to compete for permanent staff jobs. A spokesman for the Russian mission to the United Nations, Ruslan Bakhtin, declined comment, saying only that "our practice is not to comment on closed-door consultations."

The task force was established in 2006 to look into allegations of corruption within the United Nations after Alexander Yakovlev, a U.N. purchasing officer from Russia, pleaded guilty to federal charges that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from companies doing business with the world body. The case led to the conviction on similar charges of Russian diplomat Vladimir Kuznetsov, who led the chief U.N. budget committee. Kuznetsov was transferred to Moscow last month to serve out the final three years of his sentence.

Although the task force played no role in prosecuting Yakovlev or Kuznetsov, it has conducted several investigations into their roles in the scheme.

The task force's chairman, Robert Appleton, and some of his staff members were recruited from a unit set up by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker to investigate corruption in the $64 billion U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq.

Since its creation, the task force has unearthed corruption in contracts valued at more than $630 million, identified $25 million in losses, secured misconduct findings against 17 U.N. officials and provided evidence leading to the conviction of a senior procurement official. A U.N. audit said that the task force served as a deterrent to wrongdoing and that its expertise should be preserved in an expanded investigation division.

The task force has also angered some U.N. members, principally Russia and Singapore, who say it violated the due-process rights of their nationals. Singapore has sharply criticized a task force investigation into a senior U.N. procurement official, Andrew Toh, saying he was not afforded legal representation. The U.N. Board of Auditors looked into the allegations and said it found no evidence that the task force abused Toh's rights, but it downplayed the extent of corruption uncovered by the unit.

The drama over the task force's future played out Tuesday in negotiations in the U.N. basement, where General Assembly delegates deadlocked on a resolution reviewing reforms in the U.N. Office for Internal Oversight Services, which watches over investigations and audits.

On Friday, the Russian government introduced an amendment that would bar Appleton, a former federal prosecutor from Connecticut, and his staff members from serving at the United Nations for three years. Russia subsequently reduced the hiring freeze to six months and then dropped the language altogether.

But Russia pressed for a separate amendment stating that any plan to transfer the task force's "skills and competencies" into the U.N. investigation division "shall not involve the transfer of human resources."

In blocking Tuesday's resolution, the United States said it was up to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to determine the task force's fate. But a U.S. official added that Russia "firmly told our delegation even up to today that no matter what happened they would still be vehemently opposed to these people having any possibility of being hired."

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