Oil-for-Food Probe Hopes to Report in 2005

The panel investigating "serious" allegations of corruption in Iraq's oil-for-food program hopes to report on accusations of U.N. involvement by mid-2005, chairman Paul Volcker (search) said Monday.

At a news conference releasing the committee's first quarterly report, the former Federal Reserve chairman said he doesn't know how long it will take to complete the investigation, which he estimated will cost at least $30 million over the next year.

The committee's report states that "the allegations of misconduct and maladministration are serious" and Volcker told reporters, "I think clearly there's a lot of smoke." He refused to speculate on what the investigation might find.

"If you really wanted to wrap this up, in the sense of chasing down every contractor involved here and what happened to the money, I think we'd be here until the next century," he said. "Obviously, we want to investigate enough of these cases to have an understanding, as best we can, of what happened."

The oil-for-food program (search), which began in December 1996 and ended in November, was launched by the U.N. Security Council to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions.

Saddam Hussein's (search) regime could sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam's government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them and who could buy Iraqi oil — but the Security Council committee overseeing sanctions monitored the contracts.

Volcker initially predicted that the Independent Inquiry Committee would produce some results on the U.N.'s internal operation of the humanitarian program in six to eight months. But he said there is a massive amount of documentation to examine just in the United Nations — "10,000 boxes ... with millions of pages" — plus critical material in Iraq and thousands of contracts.

Volcker said the committee's priority is "to make the definitive report" on the U.N.'s administration of the program and the accusations of corruption involving U.N. officials.

"We would certainly want to get that part of it done in the first half of next year — no later than the middle of next year," he said. "But that does not mean the investigation as a whole will be completed because there's so much going on outside the U.N. that we have to follow up on as well."

Volcker said there's "a lot of competition" in investigating allegations of payoffs, bribes, kickbacks, overcharges and undercharges by companies and individuals who bought Iraqi oil and sold Iraq goods.

The U.S. Congress has launched five investigations, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating, the U.S. attorney's office in New York is interested in potential corruption by American companies, Britain is investigating a company that reported some involvement, and Iraq's interim government has launched a major probe in hopes of getting some money back, Volcker said.

Allegations of corruption in the oil-for-food program surfaced in January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, which published a list of about 270 former government officials, activists, journalists and U.N. officials from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales that were part of the U.N. program.

Volcker's committee has taken custody of the U.N. files and he told reporters it will only give out information to other inquiries that it feels will not prejudice its own investigation or be prejudicial to particular individuals. He said the committee's 50-member staff was already "well advanced" in organizing the U.N. documents and has started conducting interviews.