UNITED NATIONS – The head of the U.N. oil-for-food program denied Tuesday that he ever took bribes from Saddam Hussein's (search) government.
Benon Sevan appeared on a list published by the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada in late January of 270 former Cabinet officials, legislators, activists and journalists from more than 46 countries who allegedly received bribes in exchange for supporting Saddam's regime.
Sevan, a veteran U.N. diplomat from Cyprus, said in a statement Tuesday "there is absolutely no substance to the allegations ... that I had received oil or oil moneys from the former Iraqi regime."
Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council has asked the Oil Ministry (search) to investigate the allegations. According to Al-Mada, the bulk of the bribes went to Russian firms as part of Saddam's bid to maintain good ties with the Kremlin (search), which argued heartily against the U.S.-led invasion.
Sevan's satatement said "those making the allegations should come forward and provide the necessary documentary evidence" and present it to the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard, who read Sevan's statement, said the United Nations does not plan to launch an investigation because "it's really not clear to us even what the allegations are."
"First of all, this oil-for-food program has been audited to death. Second, we have a lot of personal confidence in Benon Sevan's integrity," he said.
The oil-for-food program was established in December 1996 to help ordinary Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Under the program, Iraq was allowed to sell unlimited quantities of oil provided all the revenue went into a U.N.-controlled escrow account and was used primarily to buy food and other basic imports.
It quickly became a lifeline for 90 percent of the population.
When the program ended in November, Sevan reported that Iraq had exported $65 billion of oil over its seven-year life span; $31 billion in food and medicine had been delivered to the Iraqi people; and $8.2 billion worth of humanitarian goods was still in the delivery pipeline.