April 17, 2005 | New York Sun

Canadian Tycoon Could Assist In U.N. Probe

Who are the two mysterious high-ranking U.N. officials fingered in one of the latest indictments of the oil-for-food scandal?

The indictment, issued last Thursday, doesn't give the names of these two U.N. officials, designating them only as U.N. officials “#1” and “#2.” But we do know the grand jury thinks they took millions in bribes from the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in exchange for trying to shape the oil-for-food relief program along lines that helped Saddam manipulate and corrupt it so as to evade U.N. sanctions. We also know the grand jury thinks one of these mystery U.N. officials has close family business ties to Canada and is acquainted with the South Korean lobbyist named in the indictment, Tongsun Park, alleged to have served as go-between for the bribes.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his staff responded to questions about the identities of the mystery officials by saying they have received no information on this from federal prosecutors and are as much in the dark as anyone else. On Friday, Mr. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told the press: “I wish I knew. I don't think anyone in this building knows.”

Maybe Mr. Annan should ask a longtime United Nations undersecretary general, Maurice Strong, special adviser to the secretary-general since 1999 and currently Mr. Annan's personal envoy to the Korean Peninsula.

The New York Sun is not asserting, or even suggesting, that Mr. Strong himself is one of the U.N. officials in question. But Mr. Strong's history indicates he might be especially well-placed to offer insights into at least the likely identity of U.N. official #2, who according to the indictment had family business ties to Canada, and along with U.N. official

#1, met with Mr. Park sometime around 1996 – the year the flawed terms of oil-for-food took shape.

Mr. Strong is a Canadian tycoon with extensive experience at the United Nations, where he has served as secretary-general of the 1992 Earth Summit, as chief architect of the Kyoto Treaty, and as the world body's guru of governance in the 1990s. Mr. Strong also has abundant connections in both North and South Korea. According to a recent dispatch from the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Mr. Strong is also said to be acquainted with Mr. Park.

Mr. Strong could not be reached for comment on the indictment, but the Sun spoke with his U.N. assistant, who said Mr. Strong plans to issue a statement today, saying he had no involvement with the oil-for-food program.

In that event, it might also be useful for Mr. Strong to address publicly his former business association with the son of the secretary-general, Kojo Annan. The younger Annan has figured prominently in the oil-for-food investigations because over the period between 1999 and 2004 he received large payments from a Switzerland-based company, Cotecna Inspections S.A., hired by the United Nations to monitor oil-for-food relief imports into Iraq between 1999 and 2003.

During part of that period, Kojo Annan and Mr. Strong both held seats on the board of another company, the now defunct Air Harbour Technologies, registered at the Isle of Man. Air Harbour's corporate registry documents list both the younger Annan and Mr. Strong as having joined the board of directors on the same day, December 28, 1999. Mr. Strong resigned just over half a year later, on July 5, 2000. Registry documents also show that Kojo Annan remained on the board for another year, resigning on July 5, 2001.

One of the more curious links to turn up in the registry documents is that a former Cotecna employee and consultant, Michael Wilson, also overlapped with Kojo Annan on the board of Air Harbour. Mr. Wilson joined the Air Harbour board on January 3, 2001 – six months before Kojo Annan resigned – and Mr. Wilson then continued to serve until May 15, 2002. The New York Times reported Saturday that Mr. Wilson is currently under investigation in Switzerland on possible bribery charges involving a contract to renovate a Geneva-based U.N. agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Air Harbour itself is something of a question mark. Also registered at Cyprus, the company is described in the Isle of Man registry documents as providing consulting services for “building design.” In the mid-1990s, before Messrs. Annan, Strong, and Wilson held seats at various times on its board, Air Harbour was plagued by reports in the African press of scandal involving its work on the airport at Harare, Zimbabwe. Isle of Man registry documents show that by 2003 Air Harbour had stopped paying its corporate fees and was stricken from the register and dissolved on October 27, 2003.

Interviewed by phone last month about his directorship with Air Harbour, Mr. Strong said he resigned after less than seven months because it was a badly run company. He said he met Kojo Annan for the first time while serving on the Air Harbour board, and “I did occasionally chat with him – we talked at the coffee period.” Asked if he had alerted the U.N. secretary-general that Kojo Annan was serving on a board from which Mr. Strong had resigned due to disappointment over the management style, Mr. Strong said he had mentioned to the senior Annan “that I had the pleasure of meeting his son on the board,” but did not discuss any details of the situation.

That lattice-work of associations may be nothing more than simply coincidence. But the U.N.-authorized inquiry into oil-for-food, led by a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, has so far provided no illumination as to the mystery officials named in the indictments. The Volcker commission's interim report, issued March 29, was devoted chiefly to Kojo Annan's business connections. It made no mention, either, of Air Harbour Technologies, where Kojo Annan rubbed elbows for a time with his father's special adviser to the United Nations, Mr. Strong, and then with Cotecna's Mr. Wilson.

 

Issues:

International Organizations