-- The former director of the United Nations' $64 billion oil-for-food program resigned Sunday, accusing Secretary General Kofi Annan of scapegoating him to save his own political future.
Benon Sevan, who has been serving on a $1-a-year contract, issued his announcement the day before a U.N.-appointed inquiry is scheduled to release a report accusing him of accepting cash bribes from an Egyptian oil dealer who traded with Iraq through the U.N.'s largest humanitarian program.
Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, head of the U.N.-appointed Independent Inquiry Committee probing corruption in the program, will release his third interim report Monday. The report is expected to assert that Sevan used his position as head of the program to steer business to an Egyptian oil man in exchange for payoffs delivered through a close Egyptian relative of former U.N. secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Sevan, 67, a 40-year United Nations veteran, 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 preempted anticipated plans by the United Nations to let him go 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 letter distributed by his lawyer, Eric L. Lewis. "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, to get out Sevan's side of the story.
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 in the 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 triggered 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 said the U.S.-led coalition, which inherited the program after toppling Hussein, was responsible for "billion of dollars of waste."