NEW YORK – Investigators probing alleged corruption at the United Nations Oil-for-Food program are scrutinizing thousands of pages of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's (search) documents, including e-mail and phone records, to determine whether he exerted influence in securing a contract for a Swiss company that employed his son.
Paul Volcker (search), the head of the independent investigation, confirmed the document search and told The Associated Press that new information had led investigators to delay publishing their findings about Annan's son Kojo, whose activities have embroiled the U.N. chief in the growing scandal.
"There were things that came along that threw us back," Volcker said in an AP interview.
The United Nations' Oil-for-Food (search) program was its largest humanitarian aid operation and ran from 1996 to 2003 when it ended. It was designed to allow the former Iraqi government to sell limited amounts of oil in exchange for humanitarian goods as an exemption from sanctions in place since 1991.
Dr. Mohammed al-Jibouri, Iraq's trade minister, said on Saturday that more has yet to be revealed on specific individuals' roles in the scandal. He did not specify any names in his comments, made to Associated Press Television News.
"There are a lot of names, and I hope there will be some fairness on that — not to shut out the light, and put this in the dark, under the carpet," al-Jibouri said.
Al-Jibouri said the program initially had been a "huge success" in helping ordinary Iraqis contend with U.N. sanctions imposed on Saddam's regime after the 1991 Gulf War.
Problems began when Iraq began imposing a surcharge on contracts for goods bought under the program, he said. "A lot of companies refused to do this, so a lot of them actually withdrew from that program," he said.
As Volcker issued an interim investigative report Thursday, he said he had planned to include the findings about Kojo Annan's (search) employment with Cotecna Inspection SA. The company had a U.N. contract to certify deals for humanitarian supplies imported by Iraq under the Oil-for-Food program.
But Volcker's committee decided to issue that part of the report along with other conclusions later this winter to give investigators time to review the new information. About 10 investigators have focused solely on the Annan files.
There were delays in organizing access to U.N. files, including those stored on hard-drives in Annan's office, but Volcker said the United Nations has been cooperating with his requests.
"It is supposed to be an open book and we have not identified conscious deliberate evasions, like shredding papers before we got there," Volcker said. "But we have been slowed — and I am not criticizing this — by a sensitivity on the part of the U.N."
He explained that officials were sensitive about his investigative panel's access to personal e-mails, but that they had resolved the matter.
Kofi Annan, who has been interviewed at least three times during the investigation, has said Volcker's panel would have complete access to U.N. officials and documents.
Investigators also have interviewed Kojo Annan several times, but Volcker said there had been some frustrations.
"He is a little difficult to get a hold of, but he doesn't refuse to be interviewed," Volcker said. "How forthcoming he is for the interview is another question."
Kojo Annan, 31, worked for Cotecna (search) from 1996 to 1998, leaving at about the time the company received the U.N. contract. He has said that he only worked for the company in Africa and has denied any involvement in its Oil-for-Food dealings.
Kofi Annan has also denied that his son's employment played a role in the contracting. But the U.N. chief expressed "disappointment and surprise" in November when it emerged that Kojo Annan had not disclosed that Cotecna continued to pay him $30,000 a year for five years after he left. The payments were compensation for an agreement not to work for competitors.
Volcker said investigators were following new leads that seemed to broaden the probe involving Kojo Annan beyond his Cotecna ties.
For example, an article published in the Times of London late last month detailed contact between Kojo Annan and Hani Yamani, the son of a former Saudi oil minister, in a failed bid for an Oil-for-Food deal. The paper quoted two unnamed "business associates" of Yamani, who claimed Kojo traveled to Morocco to help finalize the $60 million oil sale which later fell through.
"The story did not surprise us," Volcker told AP on Thursday after releasing his report.
The documents from Annan's office are among 5 million pages digitally scanned by investigators, who also have copied hard-drives from scores of U.N. computers to search the files with keywords.
The document trail has proven a key tool and following it helped investigators untangle deceptions by Oil-for-Food program director Benon Sevan. Volcker's Thursday report accused him of conflicts of interest for soliciting oil allocations from Saddam Hussein's regime.
The report alleged Sevan had repeated contact with Iraqi officials requesting that they to give a small Swiss-based oil company, African Middle East Petroleum Co. Ltd. Inc., known as AMEP, the opportunity to buy oil.
AMEP later sold about 6.4 million barrels of Iraqi crude oil to The Royal Dutch/Shell Group. The contracts could be sold to international traders for a markup of up to 35 cents a barrel, The Financial Times reported.
Volcker's investigators confronted Sevan with information gained from interviews with Iraqi officials and Fakhry Abdelnour, the owner of AMEP.
Abdelnour told them he paid an illegal surcharge of $160,000 to an Iraqi-controlled bank account in Jordan in October 2001, using some of the proceeds he had received from the sale of oil to Shell. Shell has denied any knowledge of the kickbacks.
The Iraqis told investigators that Sevan asked them in 1998 to allocate oil vouchers to AMEP to "help a friend," and said the friend's name was "Abdelnour," a charge that both Sevan and Abdelnour originally denied, saying that they had only met each other once.
But the apparent deception broke down when investigators produced documents and telephone records from Sevan's U.N. office.
Investigators found two business cards for Abdelnour in the U.N. office. The cards had different addresses, suggesting they had been obtained at different times. Detailed contact information for AMEP and Abdelnour was updated at least once as well, the report said.
And AMEP was the only company found on Sevan's telephone contact list, which investigators found on his computer.
When confronted with the documents along with detailed phone records showing numerous telephone contact with Abdelnour, Sevan's story changed.
"His description of past contacts with Mr. Abdelnour evolved from a single meeting at the OPEC conference to acknowledging a second chance meeting at a restaurant in Geneva and then, after being confronted with phone record evidence, to having developed an acquaintanceship with Mr. Abdelnour lasting over several years: 'I came to like the guy. He is an interesting character you know, he's been around the world," the report said, quoting Sevan.