U.N. Oil-for-Food Official Pleads Guilty to Bribery

A former United Nations procurement official pleads guilty to taking nearly $1 million in bribes from contractors in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. The move came after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan lifted the diplomatic immunity of the official, Alexander Yakovlev.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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A new report, new details of alleged corruption and a guilty plea in the scandal involving the United Nations' oil-for-food program. An independent commission accuses the program's former director, Benon Sevan, of accepting kickbacks. Meantime, today, a former United Nations procurement officer pleaded guilty to charges he accepted bribes. Alexander Yakovlev made his plea after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan lifted his diplomatic immunity from prosecution. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The oil-for-food program was created to provide ordinary Iraqis with food and medicine while Saddam Hussein's regime was isolated by UN sanctions. Paul Volcker, the head of the independent inquiry commission, issued another in a series of interim reports today. It details the results of the commission's investigation into allegations that UN procurement officials accepted kickbacks for helping certain companies get lucrative contracts. At a news conference in New York, Volcker outlined the report's key finding.

Mr. PAUL VOLCKER (Independent Inquiry Commission): It analyzes in detail the illicit activities of Benon Sevan, who was the executive director of the United Nations office of the Iraq program. And, second, it reviews evidence that a United Nations procurement officer, one Alexander Yakovlev, actively solicited a bribe in connection with the program.

FLINTOFF: Yakovlev didn't get the oil-for-food bribe, but he was also accused of taking almost a million dollars from contractors in other UN programs. He pleaded guilty today to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering. Sevan's take from the UN's food program is alleged to be around $150,000. Sevan's lawyer, Eric Lewis, says his client did nothing wrong, adding that it wouldn't have been worth it to him.

Mr. ERIC LEWIS (Benon Sevan's Lawyer): I think it's important to consider why a man who spent 40 years at the UN, who supervised a $64 billion program, would somehow end up taking $160,000, declaring it in plain view on his UN disclosure forms over a period of four years. It doesn't make sense. It didn't happen.

FLINTOFF: Sevan, who comes from Cyprus, had been delaying his retirement from the UN, accepting a $1-a-year salary to stay on while the commission completed its investigation. Yesterday he resigned, accusing Secretary-General Kofi Annan of abandoning him in the face of what he called `a politically motivated investigation.'

Paul Volcker said the commission still has some unanswered questions about Kofi Annan's involvement in the program and that of his son, Kojo, who worked for a Swiss company that landed a UN contract in Iraq. He cited a newly discovered e-mail suggesting that Annan and his son met with executives of that company called Cotecna.

Mr. VOLCKER: The new evidence clearly raises further questions, questions we have not been able to answer to our satisfaction for this report.

FLINTOFF: Annan's chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, told reporters later today that the secretary-general and others in his entourage don't remember any such meeting. He said Kofi Annan was disappointed that the unanswered questions should be brought up in this report.

Mr. MARK MALLOCH BROWN (Kofi Annan's Chief of Staff): I think it's a pity that this issue was raised in this report. I think it would have been better if this matter could have been left until September and the answers provided at the same time that the questions were raised. And, therefore, the secretary-general is anxious to get to the closure of this or final answers to be delivered, so that this matter can be cleared up once and for all.

FLINTOFF: Among the questions that remain is the credibility of Alexander Yakovlev, who's implicated other people in previous testimony before the commission. There are also questions about the involvement of family members of former UN chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Paul Volcker said further questions will be dealt with in the next report expected next month and the commission's final conclusions due in October. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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