October 11, 2008 | Wall Street Journal

The U.N.’s Man of Mystery

Is the godfather of the Kyoto treaty a public servant or a profiteer?

“I don't trust you, and I also question your integrity.” Thus did Maurice Strong offer me a seat on his living room sofa.

Often described as an “international man of mystery,” Mr. Strong during his long, globe-trotting career has been one of the most influential architects of the opaque cross-border bureaucracy that is today's United Nations. He is probably best known as godfather of the U.N.'s 1997 Kyoto treaty, and as a former U.N. top adviser who in that same year received a check for almost $1 million, bankrolled by the U.N.-sanctioned regime of Saddam Hussein. (Mr. Strong told me that at the time he did not know the money came from Baghdad.)

In his most recent stint at the U.N., from 1997-2005, Mr. Strong served as an Under-Secretary-General and special adviser to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He was point man on matters ranging from U.N. reform to environmentalism to North Korea. By some accounts, including his own, he has been a benevolent toiler in the multilateral trenches, a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev and Al Gore, networking to save the planet.

By other accounts, he's a self-dealing and self-declared socialist who has parlayed his talents into a push for collectivist global government. These days he is living in China, where he says his ties go back “40 years.”

The apple-faced Mr. Strong was born in 1929 in rural Canada. He grew up with a hankering to see the world. His travels took him to New York, where he spent a few months working in 1947 as a junior security officer at the U.N. He went on to tour Africa, and returned home to climb the corporate and public-sector ladders in Canada. In 1970 he returned to the U.N. for the first in a series of high-level incarnations that included organizing the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the environment, founding and becoming the first head of the U.N. Environment Program, and chairing the 1992 Rio summit on the environment.

Over the decades, Mr. Strong has had close ties to at least five former U.N. leaders, from U Thant to Mr. Annan, and he implies that even now, in Beijing, he is informally in touch on occasion with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “I do get the odd message now and then.” (Asked to confirm this, Mr. Ban's office did not respond). Along with his labors at the U.N., Mr. Strong has been engaged for years with a kaleidoscope of nongovernmental organizations and private business ventures. A collection of his papers donated to the Harvard Library, spanning the years 1948-2000 runs to 685 boxes. A theme throughout, he says, is that “I've spent my life trying to help the U.N.”

Mr. Strong no longer has any official ties to the U.N., however. In 2005, at the height of the investigations into the U.N.'s corrupt Oil-for-Food relief program for Iraq, news emerged of the six-figure check from Iraq. Evidence procured by federal investigators and the U.N.-authorized inquiry of Paul Volcker showed that Mr. Strong in 1997, while working for Mr. Annan, had endorsed a check for $988,885, made out to “Mr. M. Strong,” issued by a Jordanian bank. This check was hand-delivered to Mr. Strong by a South Korean businessman, Tongsun Park, who in 2006 was convicted in New York federal court of conspiring to bribe U.N. officials to rig Oil-for-Food in favor of Saddam.

Mr. Strong was never accused of any wrongdoing. Asked by investigators about the check, he initially denied he'd ever handled it. When they showed it to him with his own signature on the back, he acknowledged that he must have endorsed it, but said the money was meant to cover an investment Mr. Park wished to make in a Strong family company, Cordex, run by one of his sons. (Cordex soon afterward went bankrupt.) Mr. Volcker, in his final report, said that the U.N. might want to “address the need for a more rigorous disclosure process for conflicts of interest.”

During the inquiry, Mr. Strong stepped aside from his U.N. post, saying he would sideline himself until the cloud was removed. But instead of returning to his native Canada, he decamped from New York to Beijing, where he appears to have settled in. He has given few interviews from China, and for the past three years has refused my periodic requests to answer questions by phone or email.

Mr. Strong may have left the U.N. behind, but his current office is a penthouse suite in a building that houses at least three U.N. agencies (UNIDO, UNFPA and UNHCR), plus such diplomatic tenants as the embassies of Mozambique, Cyprus, and the Bahamas, as well as the Venezuelan defense attaché. He received me at his nearby apartment wearing a striped blue polo shirt, dark slacks and in his stocking feet. There were photos of Mr. Strong posing amid a multitude of world leaders at the Rio summit, and a close-up of Mr. Strong gazing into the camera beside a smiling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The latter photo was taken in her office a few years ago, when “I went to brief her on a couple of things.”

A soft-spoken man with a Canadian accent, Mr. Strong starts by giving me a piece of his mind. Not only does he not trust me, but he's still incensed by an article I co-authored in February, 2007, with George Russell of Fox News. In it, we suggested that if Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wanted to clean up the U.N.'s “tangled nest of personal relationships, public-private partnerships, murky trust funds, unaudited funding conduits, and inter-woven enterprises,” he might start by investigating the trail of Maurice Strong. Flourishing a printout of the piece, Mr. Strong protests that “everything I did, I checked it out carefully with the U.S.” He also charges that we made “no mention of what I did in putting the environmental agenda on the map.” (Actually, we gave him full credit for that, but questioned the extent to which — as an unelected official — he had manipulated the U.N. system to support his own agenda).

“You called for an investigation,” says Mr. Strong, “Actually, I wouldn't mind.” He hands me a draft report by a former Swedish diplomat, saying it has not yet been released, but “you can have it.” The document, subtitled “A Study in Leadership,” describes in flattering terms Mr. Strong's maneuvers over many years to shape a U.N. agenda in which public conferences became largely a façade for decisions already brokered behind the scenes by Mr. Strong.

“I've made mistakes here and there, yes,” says Mr. Strong, but they've been “honest mistakes.”

Talk skips around. He says that when he left New York in 2005, “I didn't just run away to China, I already had an apartment here.” He adds that his departure from the U.N. was motivated not by the Oil-for-Food investigations, but by his sense at the time, as Mr. Annan's special adviser on North Korea, that the U.N. had reached an impasse. “It just happened to coincide with the publicity surrounding my so-called nefarious activities.” He insists: “I had no involvement at all in Oil-for-Food . . . I just stayed out of it.”

U.N. records show that he chaired Mr. Annan's 1997 U.N. reform panel, which among other items reorganized the initially ad hoc and scattered Oil-for-Food administrative apparatus into one big Office of the Iraq Program. That allowed Mr. Annan to appoint one man to directly manage the operation, the now-fugitive Benon Sevan, indicted in New York last year on charges of taking Oil-for-Food bribes. (Mr. Sevan has said he's innocent). Doesn't that early reshaping of the program qualify as involvement with Oil-for-Food?

“I chaired the process,” says Mr. Strong, but “I got inputs from a whole series of people.” On the creation of the office run by Mr. Sevan, “I didn't realize it had been done until someone pointed it out.”

I have been waiting a long time to ask a further question, prompted by evidence that emerged in the Tongsun Park trial, showing that three years after delivering that Baghdad-funded check to Mr. Strong, Park was transferring money directly into Mr. Strong's personal bank account to pay the rent for a private office maintained by Mr. Strong in midtown Manhattan. Why was Mr. Park paying Mr. Strong's office rent? “He was paying his own rent,” replies Mr. Strong, adding that the arrangement was a “sublet.” “I had the U.N. office, so I didn't really need all that space . . . he wanted an address in New York.”

But there were signs that the same premises were also used at some point as a New York office by the U.N.-chartered University for Peace (a small school headquartered in Costa Rica, which with Mr. Strong chairing its board from 1999-2006 developed an outsized interest in proposing U.N.-funded development projects for North Korea, and used U.N. facilities to arrange trips for North Korean officials to Europe). What was that about? “It was only interim,” says Mr. Strong. “It was a motley office.”

He grows irritable that I am “resurrecting all this.” He talks much more cheerfully about his current projects. He says he is still Canadian, keeps a home in Canada, and pays taxes there. But most of his work right now is in China. His erratic health leaves him less interested in global travel. He says he suffers from diabetes, and has had five heart bypasses: “I have a cow's valve in my heart.”

That hasn't slowed him down much inside China, where he holds appointments at three universities and serves as an adviser to the government. “My advice gets to the highest levels.” he says. He has also been involved in setting up the Tianjin Climate Exchange for trading carbon credits: “the first climate exchange in China.” It's a joint venture with several entities, including the Chicago Climate Exchange, where he holds a seat on the board.

At one point in our conversation, his cell phone rings, and while leaning back to chat with the caller about an environmental conclave he has just attended in the port city of Tianjin, he drops the name of China's prime minister: “I think the meeting with Wen Jiabao made a good impression.”

Does Mr. Strong see any conflict in the fact that his signature U.N. product, the Kyoto treaty, grants big, profitable concessions to developing nations such as China — and now here he is, involved in China's carbon trading and working as an adviser to the Chinese government? He replies that China when it signed on to Kyoto was not “the cause of the problem.” He also says that his work for the Chinese government and universities is “all pro bono.”

Asked whether he's involved in any private ventures these days, he says he was involved with the Chinese Chery Automobile Company, but as an adviser, not an investor, and he is now out of that. He says he's chairman of a company that's helping China earn emissions credits, the China Carbon Corporation. He's on the board of a U.S.-based engineering and construction firm CH2M Hill.

And what about the company listed on the business card his office assistant gave me: Cosmos International? He says it's a private firm, operating out of Beijing and Ottawa: “Just my little vehicle, it's just me and my son.” He explains that he has two sons. Fred, who “does his own thing,” and Ken, his youngest son, who is his business partner.

Mr. Strong has long been rumored to be a billionaire. I seize the chance to ask him how much he is really worth. He ducks: “Rumors of my wealth are greatly exaggerated. I have never been interested in money.” OK, but how about a ballpark figure — millions? Tens of millions? “Maybe a few millions, yes. I don't complain.”

Is he planning to visit his old stomping grounds in New York City anytime soon? He hasn't been back in a couple of years, he says, “I'm just too busy.” Speaking of which, another visitor has arrived at his apartment, and they have a lunch appointment. As we head down to the lobby, I ask if the building is new. Not really, he says, but he likes the place — “It has its own internal air cleaning system.” Donning his trademark trilby — “white for summer, black for winter” — he heads off into the haze of Beijing.

Ms. Rosett heads the Investigative Reporting Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.

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