June 12, 2007 | Fox News

Will Fraud Conviction Help U.N. Reform Its Secretive ‘Culture of Impunity’?

Co-Authored with George. Russell

“Justice has been done.”

That’s how United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the conviction for fraud and corruption of a former top U.N. procurement official, Sanjaya Bahel, who was found guilty on June 7 in New York federal court of steering some $100 million worth of U.N. peacekeeping support contracts to the well-connected family of a fellow-Indian friend.

But Ban’s self-congratulatory remark is misleading.

The saga of Bahel’s extensive career of corruption extends well beyond his individual case, into a U.N. system that still is mired in murky practices and desperately lacking in dependable oversight or any normal administration of justice.

Even as Bahel faced up to 30 years in prison for his misdeeds, top U.N. officials continued to dodge questions about how and why the U.N. itself twice exonerated Bahel over a period of years, most recently in December 2004, even while the organization lethargically examined much the same evidence that persuaded a New York jury to convict the man after less than half a day of deliberations.

Moreover, an examination of U.N. documentation that did not surface during Bahel’s trial shows that even in his case, the rot extends further than the public record shows. The risk now is that Bahel’s conviction itself could become an excuse for the U.N. to cover up even deeper and more widespread problems in the U.N.’s multi-billion-dollar procurement department and in the U.N. system of justice.

According to court evidence and testimony, Bahel’s scams began at least as far back as 1999, when he secretly began scheming to help companies connected with the family of a longtime friend, Nanak Kohli, to obtain lucrative U.N. contracts for which they were not qualified.

Bahel, who was both a U.N. employee and an Indian civil servant “seconded” to the international organization, bent and twisted U.N. rules in a variety of ways to steer contracts covering everything from skilled-labor supply to computers and short-wave radios to a number of firms, including a state-owned Indian telecommunications flagship, Telecommunications Consultants International Ltd. (TCIL).

At the same time, Bahel manipulated a spineless and incurious U.N. bureaucracy to ignore complaints from TCIL workers — backed by U.N. field staff — that the contractors were stealing their on-site food and housing allowances in peacekeeping zones, and firing them if they complained.

In return, Bahel over the years received from Kohli thousands in cash, first-class air travel upgrades, a laptop computer, pricey tennis tournament tickets and bargain rental on a luxury apartment in midtown Manhattan, which Bahel finally purchased secretly from his friends at a cut-rate price.

In the end, the chief witness against Bahel was Nanak Kohli’s son Nishan, who cut a plea-bargain that might reduce his own 10-year maximum sentence on a bribery conviction. So far,his father — a well-known figure in India — and his brother, who also were involved in the schemes, have not faced criminal charges.

Commenting on Bahel’s conviction, the head of the U.N ‘s watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), Inga-Britt Ahlenius, told the press last week that the U.N. itself is the “victim” of “such fraud and waste.”

That was true as far as it went. But the U.N. for years never seemed to mind being such a victim, so long as the scandal never saw daylight. The ultimate victims in this case included U.S. taxpayers, who were bilked by a U.N. system that allowed Bahel’s scams to continue for years, even as U.N. peacekeepers and the people they were ostensibly trying to protect were short-changed of the support that taxpayer money was meant to provide.

The long road to the Bahel verdict is littered with U.N. incompetence, denials, lies, and cover-ups, while a mantle of secrecy — described by one set of auditors as a “culture of impunity” — gave cover to Bahel long after whistleblowers had tried repeatedly to raise serious questions inside the U.N. system about his conduct.

Indeed, Bahel’s public conviction does not cover all of the scams and all of the companies that the U.N. believes were involved in his many schemes.

Most questionable of all the U.N.s’ failings were the actions of three high-ranking officials who were well paid to oversee integrity in the U.N. procurement department. All of them failed, and none have yet been called to account for their failures.

They are the former head of OIOS, Dileep Nair, who left his job in a cloud of scandal in 2005; the former head of OIOS’s investigative division, Barbara Dixon, who likewise left after being tarred with accusations of abuse of authority; and Bahel’s onetime boss in procurement, Andrew Toh, who has defended the U.N. procurement process on the grounds that “I don’t see how anyone could beat the (procurement) system.”

Nair is now his native Singapore’s consul-general in Dubai. Dixon was, for a time, a member of the board of auditors supervising the integrity of yet another costly U.N. agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization (she since has resigned). And, for more than a year now, Toh, who eventually rose to the U.N.’s fourth-highest rank of assistant secretary general, has been collecting his U.N. salary on paid administrative leave while under investigation for gross mismanagement and failing to cooperate with investigators looking into yet another multimillion-dollar procurement scandal. He has insistently denied any and all wrongdoing.

Nair, the former top U.N. watchdog, was the target in 2004 of formal allegations of favoritism and rumors of sexual misconduct. He maintains he is innocent. An independent inquiry into his behavior dragged on for almost two years, during which time the U.N.’s internal oversight division refused to cooperate with requests for documents from the investigation. Eventually, the independent inquiry found Nair guilty of improper behavior in a variety of personnel promotions, even though the U.N. itself only proclaimed that he had been cleared on the sexual harassment issue.

Meanwhile, Nair had decamped to rejoin the diplomatic service of his native Singapore.

Barbara Dixon, who worked directly under Nair, led an inquiry into Bahel’s behavior after his superior — Toh’s replacement — lodged a complaint against the Indian. U.N. auditors quickly found a wide variety of “fraud indicators” in Bahel’s behavior involving TCIL and another Kohli company, Thunderbird LLC, that merited further investigation.

But when it came, that investigation was a farce. According to a U.N. internal report obtained by Fox News, investigators dispatched by Dixon made a visit to the alleged New York offices of Thunderbird, to which Bahel had steered a $20 million contract to supply temporary manpower for U.N. peacekeeping missions despite signs that it was at best only marginally qualified. The auditors failed to notice that the offices – like the company’s financial statements — were a flagrant front, which a Fox News team found occupied last year by a trio of chiropractors.

Kohli freely admitted in court that a variety of personal testimony as to Thunderbird’s solvency was also phony. The Dixon-led investigation mainly consisted of contacting the same fraudulent sources and accepting their word at face value.

In July 2004, after accepting false references and blatantly dummied-up evidence, Dixon’s team cleared Bahel – who the previous year had been moved from the procurement department to head, among other things the UN postal administration. (There, shortly before Bahel arrived, and over the signature of his boss, Andrew Toh, the U.N.’s irreplaceable stamp archive, dating back to 1951, was auctioned off in Switzerland, apparently without authorization.) In July, 2005, in the wake of Dixon’s exoneration of Bahel, Toh announced a management shuffle that would have, among other things, promoted Bahel to run all of U.N. procurement

That promotion was vetoed by Christopher Burnham, a former U.S. Marine and senior U.S. State Department official who had taken over the U.N.’s top management job with the intent of actually reforming the place. In January 2006 – with the UN then reeling from the Oil-for-Food scandal and indications of hundreds of millions of potential fraud in procurement — Burnham got authorization for a special task force within OIOS that sidelined Dixon and finally began a real investigation of procurement corruption.

It was the work of the so-called Procurement Task Force that finally fingered Bahel. In the process, the task force noted that a number of key files in the case had mysteriously disappeared before they had a chance to examine them. The task force also accused Bahel of steering unwarranted contracts worth nearly $10 million to another Indian firm, PCP International Ltd, for generators for U.N. peacekeepers that later proved faulty.

The fact that any justice was done in Bahel’s case was due to Burnham’s determination to listen to one brave whistleblower, a feisty woman named Jane Redfern who had worked as a procurement trainee under Bahel, and repeatedly questioned his machinations on behalf of his Indian friends as far back as 2001. Her career wilted as a result, and Burnham eventually gave her a job in his own office. She now works for UNICEF.

At the U.N., the stars will not easily align to repeat that victory for integrity — or even to reward those who have given some of that quality back to the institution.

Redfern testified as a crucial prosecution witness at the Bahel trial. But she now has been left by the U.N.’s Office of Legal Affairs, and by Burnham’s successor as the head of UN management, Alicia Barcena, to pay her own legal bills for that exercise. The only option Redfern was offered by the U.N. was to accept a lawyer whose first loyalty would have been to the U.N., with no guarantee of protection for Redfern’s own interests.

In the wake of the Bahel case, the U.N.’s special procurement task force is continuing to pore over a mass of other corruption cases — about 140, by Ahlenius’ estimate, of which 20 to 25 are considered major. Many of them date back to Barbara Dixon’s time as chief OIOS investigator.

TCIL and Thunderbird have been banned from further dealing with the United Nations procurement department — although in one case that the task force is examining, involving a company called Trigyn Technologies Inc. USA, the subsidiary of an Indian firm, there is evidence of Thunderbird involvement as a sub-contractor, along with at least one other Kohli company.

At a press conference last week, Ahlenius noted that some $1 billion worth of U.N. contracts are still under investigation, and millions “in fraud and waste” already have been discovered. Along with TCIL, a number of important companies, including firms from Russia, Italy, Canada and the U.S., have been removed from the U.N.’s list of authorized vendors, at least until further investigations are concluded.

But will those victories reverse years, if not decades, of neglect, incompetence, inertia and deliberate wrongdoing, at times driven by the desires of various U.N. member states themselves?

Ahlenius noted last week that U.N. internal workings remain so flawed that “it’s difficult to place any reliance on the system.”

One case she might have pointed to was the extraordinary behavior of diplomats representing Singapore, who have loudly and repeatedly come to the defense of Bahel’s boss, Andrew Toh, and in the process stalled a variety of U.N. proceedings to protest what one diplomat called a “travesty of justice” in Toh’s case. Toh remains the highest-ranking Singapore native in the U.N. bureaucracy. The second highest-ranking Singaporean was the disgraced former head of OIOS, Dileep Nair.

The lobbying and obstruction of self-interested U.N. member-states can outlast individual reformers. Top-management hand Burnham, who arrived at the U.N. in mid-2005, resigned last December to work in the private sector. The mandate of the special task force he convened to investigate corruption in the procurement department expires at the end of this year.

There is no guarantee its work will be extended, or that much of it will see the light of day. And there is as yet no definite sign that the U.N. – with all its privileges, immunities, secrecy and taxpayer money — is systemically configured or even willing to police itself effectively.

Indeed, on Tuesday, June 12, Ban Ki-Moon posted a warning on the U.N.’s intranet site, telling employees of the importance of keeping confidential U.N. documents out of the hands of the media.

“I cannot overstate,” he said, “how seriously I take this issue.”

Claudia Rosett is a Journalist-in-Residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. George. Russell is Executive Editor of Fox News.


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