WASHINGTON – The already controversial U.N. Oil-for-Food (search) program may also have been a vast international money-laundering scheme involving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, documents reviewed by FOX News suggest.
Bank records obtained by a congressional panel investigating the Oil-for-Food program raise questions about the role of French bank BNP Paribas as well as the actions of United Nations officials given the task of administering the program.
Those documents reveal that during the summer of 2003, federal regulators investigated 80 BNP wire transfers and found indications of money laundering in three of them involving $9 million dollars.
Because BNP carried out an estimated 50,000 transfers for the Oil-for-Food program, the amount of money under congressional scrutiny could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The three suspicious transactions concerned a company called Al-Riyadh International Flowers (search), a firm based in Saudi Arabia.
The documents show that Al-Riyadh was sending what were described as humanitarian supplies to Iraq under the Oil-for-Food program, but when BNP was supposed to pay the company, Al-Riyadh instead asked for the payments to go to a third party, a company called East Star Trading (search).
Investigators for the House International Relations Committee — one of five congressional panels looking into alleged Oil-for-Food abuses — described the situation as a "classic money-laundering ploy."
It's not clear whether BNP, which has offices in New York, broke any U.S. banking laws. But under its contract with the U.N., BNP was not authorized to make such third-party payments.
"Maybe there was an irregularity, and there should have been better documentation. But there is no evidence to suggest money went to a company that misused it or abused it in any way," Bob Bennett, a lawyer for BNP, told FOX News.
When FOX asked what kind of company East Star Trading was, BNP lawyers said they were still trying to determine that.
Congressional investigators would also like to know, but the bottom line is that no one is sure where the $9 million in question went, and how many more millions may have ended up in unexpected hands.
The U.N. set up the Oil-for-Food program in 1996 to allow Iraq, under sanctions since the first Gulf War, to sell some of its oil as a way to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian needs.
Officials said the program was needed to help relieve some of the hardships caused by the sanctions.
But Saddam Hussein, other Iraqi officials and some of the firms that did business under the program are believed to have siphoned off billion of dollars for their own personal use.
An April report by the General Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office, estimated that the Iraqi government skimmed $4.4 billion dollars through Oil-for-Food kickbacks and an additional $5.7 billion through oil smuggling along the Turkish and Jordanian borders.
A Senate report in November charged that Saddam's regime was enriched by $21 billion because of oil surcharges, smuggling and kickbacks.
Besides the congressional investigations, the United Nations has authorized an independent probe. A preliminary report is scheduled to be released next month.
FOX News' Jonathan Hunt and Per Carlson contributed to this report.