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01/09/2009 |
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WSJ (08.01.2009): U.N. Allows Its Antifraud Task Force to Dissolve

The U.N. hasn't renewed funding for a contract-fraud task force amid objections by the Russian government.

The United Nations hasn't renewed funding for a special task force that uncovered about $630 million in alleged contract fraud, and efforts to retain some of its investigators have been delayed following objections from the Russian government.

The delays could put at risk 175 investigations that the task force had not completed, according to Inga-Britt Ahlenius, who oversees the U.N.'s main investigative division, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS.

Some of those investigations involve Russian nationals and companies, according to a person familiar with the matter. The task force also followed up on a case in which a former U.N. purchasing agent from Russia pleaded guilty in 2005 to federal charges of soliciting bribes from U.N. contractors, this person said.

Russia introduced a U.N. resolution last month that would have barred the U.N. from hiring members of the task force for three years. The resolution was defeated, but the hiring of some investigators has become mired in bureaucracy. A spokesman for the U.N.'s Russian mission didn't respond to requests for comment.

The task force -- which was created in 2006 in the wake of a scandal in the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program in Iraq -- was never intended to be permanent. The U.N. had only funded it through Dec. 31. But the prospect that its investigations will be dropped raises questions about the U.N.'s commitment to police itself, some U.S. officials say. As previously reported last month, an American-backed drive to protect U.N. employees who attempt to expose wrongdoing is also faltering.

The contract-fraud unit, known as the Procurement Task Force, investigated bid-rigging, bribery and other abuses at U.N. headquarters and in peacekeeping missions abroad.

In its three years of operation, the task force racked up successful criminal convictions of a U.N. employee and contractor, initiated disciplinary actions against 17 other U.N. employees, and suspended or removed more than 45 private companies from the U.N. contracting process, according to records and interviews. It identified more than $25 million that it says was wasted or ended up unjustly enriching vendors.

Since funding for the unit ended, two of the unit's 18 investigators have found other jobs within OIOS. Ms. Ahlenius says she wants to hire nine people, including about six from the task force, for six months to help conclude the unfinished investigations. But those hirings have been held up in the U.N. bureaucracy.

"If we can't get these people on board, we can't continue the investigations," she says. She added that OIOS, which currently has about 75 investigators, lacks experts in contract fraud. From 40 to 50 of the 175 probes outstanding are considered high-priority, according to a confidential OIOS document.

Angela Kane, the U.N.'s under-secretary-general for management whose department oversees hirings, says: "We want to make sure that everything, particularly with the sensitivity of the situation, follows the rules and regulations of the United Nations."

Also in limbo is the status of the task force's chief, Robert Appleton, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut. Mr. Appleton had served as special counsel to the oil-for-food investigative committee headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, which had recommended creating the task force. "He has done wonderful, excellent work for close to three years," Ms. Ahlenius said.

Mr. Appleton applied to be OIOS's director of investigations more than a year ago. But after a hiring panel selected him and three other finalists from a pool of 73 candidates, another board recently decided to restart the process, because all four finalists were American males, say U.N. officials.

"According to U.N. rules, there has to be some geographical choice, and women have to be part of the process," said Michele Montas, a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. U.N. officials say the hiring process could take another three months or more. Mr. Appleton, who declined to comment about his application, is no longer on the U.N. payroll.

During its existence, the task force has faced criticism from several countries. In 2007, Singapore publicly complained about the treatment of one of its nationals, Andrew Toh, an assistant U.N. secretary-general in the management department, who was accused of mismanagement and failing to provide financial information sought by the task force.

Mr. Toh, who denied any wrongdoing, resigned from the U.N. a year ago. He couldn't be reached for comment.

More recently, Russia opposed an audit board's recommendation to incorporate "the skills of the Procurement Task Force in OIOS," arguing the department already has such capability, according to U.N. minutes. "The bottom line is the Russians didn't want these folks to be rehired," said a U.S. official, who declined to be identified.

Among its work, the task force took a broad look at leads that arose from the case of Alexander Yakovlev, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Yakovlev was a U.N. purchasing agent from Russia who pleaded guilty in 2005 to U.S. charges of taking nearly $1 million in bribes from U.N. contractors, and is awaiting sentencing. The task force continued to look at the bribe allegations and issued several reports in 2006 and 2007, alleging, among other things, that at least six additional companies had paid him bribes, this person said.

Arkady Bukh, Mr. Yakovlev's attorney, said he has heard about the task force's additional allegations, but hasn't seen them in writing and couldn't comment. He said he expects his client to be sentenced in a few months.

In its latest annual report, released in August, the task force reported on seven completed investigations, including an alleged scheme by a U.N. staffer to defraud the U.N. Office for Project Services by steering more than $350,000 in contracts to companies associated with the staffer's spouse. Two staff members were dismissed, and a dozen companies were removed from the U.N.'s list of registered vendors, the report stated. The staffers and companies weren't identified.



  • 2009.01.09 |

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