NEW YORK – The former head of the United Nation's oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan (search), on Sunday insisted to Fox News that he was innocent of the corruption claims against him.
A Fox News reporter approached Sevan in Manhattan and asked him several questions, including whether allegations against him were true. Sevan would only refer the reporter to an earlier statement the U.N. released in his name and said he was not giving interviews on the topic.
"Listen, I want to tell you something — first, I don't interview anymore," Sevan told Fox News' Eric Shawn. "You know me, I'm never shy with the press. I made my statement February 10. I stand by it. I'm looking forward to meet[ing] with the members of the panel. Thank you."
A veteran U.N. diplomat from Cyprus, Sevan said in a statement Feb. 10 "there is absolutely no substance to the allegations ... that I had received oil or oil moneys from the former Iraqi regime."
Sevan's statement 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 (search).
Sevan's name reportedly was found on millions of dollars' worth of oil vouchers in Iraq. Two other as-yet-unnamed high-level U.N. officials are also allegedly implicated.
Asked by Fox News "Will you cooperate with authorities?", Sevan responded, "Of course I will cooperate."
When asked "Will you give your bank records over to the investigators?", Sevan replied, "I speak only to the panel, not to you."
Sevan refused to say whether or not he would give up diplomatic immunity during the investigation. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said he would strip diplomats of immunity if they were found guilty of wrongdoing.
Sevan added that in America, one is innocent before being proven guilty, that he was clearly unhappy with the media's coverage of the scandal and of himself and that he would respond only to the U.N. panel leading the investigation.
Sevan ran the oil-for-food program for seven years and is now one of several top U.N. officials accused of receiving kickbacks from Saddam Hussein's government.
A three-member panel led by Paul Volcker (search), the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, is investigating the oil-for-food scandal. The panel does not have subpoena authority and will rely instead on voluntary cooperation from governments, U.N. staff, members of Saddam's former government and current Iraqi leaders.
The panel says it has evidence that dozens of people, including top U.N. officials, took kickbacks from the $67 billion oil-for-food program.
The General Accounting Office (search), the U.S. Congress' investigative arm, estimated in March that the Iraqi government pocketed $5.7 billion by smuggling oil to its neighbors and $4.4 billion by extracting kickbacks on otherwise legitimate contracts.
Under the oil-for-food program, which began in December 1996 and officially ended in November 2003, Saddam Hussein's government could sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and toward reparations to 1991 Gulf War victims.
The Baghdad government was allowed to choose what to buy and from whom to buy it, as well as who could in turn buy Iraqi oil, but a U.N. committee monitored the contracts.
Officials said Sevan was retiring on May 31 but would remain available for the investigation.
"Benon has stated quite clearly that he is innocent," Annan said April 21 after meeting with Sevan at the United Nations to discuss the allegations and investigation. "He has indicated he will cooperate, as I expect all other staff members to cooperate."
The allegations of U.N. corruption first surfaced in January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, which claimed it had obtained a list of about 270 government officials, activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil-for-food sales.
Annan launched an internal inquiry in February but canceled it in March to allow a broader, more independent examination as allegations of massive corruption grew.
Fox News' Eric Shawn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.