One of the most important tests facing Secretary-General Ban is a scandal involving the U.N. procurement department.
The current drama's main players are a former U.N. procurement chief, Andrew Toh of Singapore; a former top American U.N. official who tried to clean up the operation by forming a task force to investigate the procurement department, Christopher Burnham; federal prosecutors, who have yet to lose a case against U.N. officials, and Mr. Ban, who wants his top aides to account for their holdings and assets.
The prolific American bank robber Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that's where the money was. At the United Nations, the procurement department is where the money is. Without proper oversight, any shenanigans will sooner happen there than in any other part of the organization's behemoth bureaucracy. But while suspicions about Mr. Toh last year led then-Secretary-General Annan to suspend him from his job, the former procurement chief and his supporters now seem to be declaring vindication. They are citing findings by the United Nations's Joint Disciplinary Committee and the U.N. Panel on Discrimination and Other Grievances. The latter, they say, concluded that Mr. Burnham subjected Mr. Toh to discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.
It sounds almost as if Mr. Toh were planning a lawsuit against Mr. Burnham. But before Mr. Ban contemplates removing Mr. Burnham's immunity, let's be clear: The task force's investigation of the procurement scandal is far from over. As the Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations, Vanu Gopala Menon, acknowledged on Friday in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, even the disciplinary committee found that Mr. Toh failed to "properly declare his financial assets."
Without subpoena powers, which the procurement task force lacks, it is hard to investigate anyone who declines to cooperate by disclosing his or her assets.
In January 2006, Mr. Annan created the task force at Mr. Burnham's prodding in response to allegations of rampant misdeeds in the procurement department. Eight procurement staff members, including Mr. Toh, were suspended at the time, though they continued to receive their salary. "If I was as corrupt as they allege, why are they paying me?" Mr. Toh told the Journal recently.
In its October 5 report, the procurement task force concluded that for three years a "senior staff member," whom it does not identify, "omitted critical financial information" from a disclosure form all senior staff members were obliged to fill out. The missing information included "his bank accounts, real property, and financial information concerning the staff member's spouse."
Elsewhere in the report, the task force's investigators identified 10 "significant fraud and corruption schemes" in procurement contracts that added up to $610 million in the 18-month period it covered, and "misappropriation" of resources of more than $25 million. The task force conducted 63 investigations into contracts valued at $1.4 billion.
Of the eight procurement department staff members who were suspended in January 2006, according to the October 5 report, three have since been cleared, four were charged with management deficiencies or breach of U.N. rules, and one, Sanjaya Bahel of India, was found guilty of bribery and related crimes by a New York federal jury.
Separately, a Russian national, Vladimir Kuznetsov, was sentenced on Friday in Manhattan federal court to 51 months in prison for his role in a money-laundering scheme related to the procurement scandal.
In its report, the task force states that some cases will need to be investigated beyond the end of the year, when its budget runs out. But the Journal reported recently that despite the task force's success, Singapore is now leading an effort to deny it additional funding. And in his Friday letter to the Journal, Mr. Menon portrayed Mr. Toh as a victim of "harassment, discrimination, and intimidation" by the task force and by Mr. Burnham.
Mr. Ban is in critical need of Singapore's support as he tries to persuade Southeast Asian powers to pressure the Burmese junta to end its repression against dissidents. But the secretary-general also has made the disclosure form a signature piece of his management style. Whereas Mr. Annan had to be led kicking and screaming even to fill out his own form, Mr. Ban quickly filled his out, instructed all his other senior staff members to follow suit, and urged them to make their finances public.
Other than Mr. Ban and a handpicked fellow Korean lieutenant, Kim Won-soo, no one to date has made such a public disclosure. Nevertheless, most senior staff members have filled out the form, which is filed with an independent agency. This has been a victory of sort for the secretary-general. Now he may be forced to choose between political support in Asia and U.N. transparency and oversight.