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Ex-U.N. Official Spent Development Funds on Luxury Items, Probe Says
Helseth arrived in Afghanistan in May 2002, six months after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban. The son of a former U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan, Helseth was quickly promoted to head UNOPS's Afghan operations and opened a regional headquarters office in Dubai.
By the time he stepped down in 2006, Helseth had secured more than $850 million in USAID, World Bank and U.N. projects and had overseen more than 800 international staff members and thousands of local workers.
The task force report credits Helseth with helping to carry out vital road projects, including a $360 million USAID effort to rebuild secondary roads, and Afghanistan's landmark national and parliamentary elections, including the 2004 election of President Hamid Karzai.
But the operation was plagued by "record keeping [that] did not comply with even the most basic standards of international financial accounting," the task force said. By 2005, Helseth's office was distributing more than $1 million a day in cash and spending freely on such luxury items as $7,500 for Ethiopian furniture, nearly $10,000 for silk Afghan carpets and more than $2,200 for floral arrangements in Burma.
The most serious allegations stem from a rented Kabul house that Helseth renovated to make it suitable for entertaining foreign dignitaries and to provide secure accommodations for other U.N. employees. The task force alleged that Helseth improperly billed USAID and other donors $120,000 for the construction of additional living quarters -- including a $20,00 kitchen renovation charged to a U.S.-funded program to build women's dormitories at Kabul University. The money was never returned, the report said.
The task force said Helseth instructed a subordinate to take $65,000 in cash for him from a U.N. safe and fabricated a bogus lease indicating the money was paid to the property's landlord.
Helseth said the money was reimbursement for a personal investment in the home renovation, which he said benefited the United Nations.
He also charged USAID for more than $66,000 in sports equipment and billed that agency and the United Nations $30,000 for a Lexus. "Certainly USAID project money was never intended to be used to support a luxury car for Mr. Helseth or to furnish his office with extravagant items," the task force said. USAID did not respond to a request for comment.
Helseth disagreed. "The type of car a man drives says a lot about who he is and what he can accomplish," his response said.
He conceded that it was inappropriate to use USAID funds to pay for the gym equipment, the car and many other expenses. He blamed U.N. financial specialists for the lapse, adding that the organization's financial systems were "in such a state of disarray" that it would have been "impossible" to strictly comply with U.N. rules.