-- The former director of the United Nations' scandal-plagued $64 billion oil-for-food program was accused Monday of getting nearly $150,000 in kickbacks funneled to him by a relative of former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Benon Sevan, the former head of the oil-for-food program, derived "personal pecuniary benefit from the program," according to the 88-page report by the U.N. Independent Inquiry Committee. The panel, headed by the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, recommended that diplomatic immunity be waived for "purposes of a criminal investigation" for Sevan.
In the report, the third issued by Volcker on the program, the U.N. committee also accused a U.N. purchasing officer, Alexander Yakovlev, of soliciting a bribe from a contractor.
Several hours after Volcker's report was issued, the U.S. attorney's office for the southern district of New York announced that Yakovlev had pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting that bribe, making him the first U.N. official to face criminal charges in connection with the scandal-tainted program, according to the Associated Press.
In addition, he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering, and could face up to 20 years in prison for each charge, the AP reported, but it was not immediately clear if those addition charges had any relation to the release of Volcker's report.
Sevan resigned from the United Nations Sunday, accusing Secretary General Kofi Annan of scapegoating him to save his own political future. Sevan, who has been serving on a $1-a-year contract, issued his announcement the day before the U.N. panel released its report accusing him of accepting cash bribes from an Egyptian oil dealer who traded with Iraq through the program, the U.N.'s largest humanitarian program.
The report asserted that Sevan used his position as head of the program to steer business to an Egyptian oil man in exchange for payoffs that were delivered through a close Egyptian relative of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In releasing the report, Volcker said Sevan created a grave conflict of interest.
According to the inquiry, Sevan worked with Egyptian Fakhry Abdelnour, a cousin of Boutros Boutros-Ghali who owned a small trading firm, called African Middle East Petroleum (AMEP). The firm transferred $580,000 to the account of Fred Nadler, the brother of Boutros-Ghali's wife Leia, the report alleged.
Nadler then deposited in cash $147,184 to the New York bank accounts of Sevan and his wife, the report said.
"Sevan corruptly and in concert with Fred Nadler and Fakhry Abdelnour derived personal pecuniary benefit through the program through cash receipts from the sale of oil allocated by Iraq in the name of Mr. Sevan and sold by AMEP," the report said.
Sevan, 67, a 40-year veteran of the United Nations, told Annan in a letter that he is innocent of the accusations, and criticized the U.N. chief for breaking his promise to cover Sevan's legal fees during the U.N. investigation. His decision essentially preempted anticipated plans by the United Nations before the end of the year.
"The charges are false, and you, who have known me all these years, should know they are false," Sevan wrote in the three-page letter that was distributed by his lawyer, Eric L. Lewis, Sunday. "I fully understand the pressure that you are under, and that there are those who are trying to destroy your reputation as well as my own, but sacrificing me for political expediency will never appease our critics or help you or the Organization."
Although Sevan had essentially finished his service with the United Nations in late 2003, he was asked by Annan to remain on the job for a $1-a-year fee to cooperate in Volcker's investigation. Annan pledged to cover Sevan's legal fees, but he reneged on that commitment and initiated disciplinary proceedings after the Volcker committee alleged in a February report that Sevan had engaged in a "grave conflict of interest" by soliciting oil deals for an Egyptian associate. The arrangement provided Sevan with diplomatic immunity, but Annan said that he would waive it if Sevan faced criminal charges.
The Manhattan District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, is conducting a criminal probe into Sevan's activities. Lewis said Sevan is in his native Cyprus, where he plans to retire. On Thursday, Lewis disclosed to the media the key findings of Volcker's investigation in order to get his side of the story across
The oil-for-food program was established in December 1996 to allow Iraq, which was facing U.N. sanctions for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to sell oil to buy food and medicine and to repay billions in war reparations. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein siphoned at least $2 billion in illegal kickbacks from companies trading under the humanitarian program.
Annan appointed Volcker to lead an inquiry into allegations that Iraq granted U.N. officials, including Sevan, lucrative rights to buy discounted Iraqi oil in exchange for favorable treatment. The allegations also triggered several congressional investigations and criminal probes by Morgenthau and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In his letter, Sevan defended the program, which was shuttered in the fall in November 2003, months after Hussen's ouster. Sevan said the program fed 27 million people, cut child malnutrition in half, eliminated polio and saved "tens of thousands of innocent people from death from starvation and disease."
Sevan lashed out at the U.S.-led coalition, which inherited the program after toppling Hussein, saying it was responsible for "billion of dollars of waste."