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Annan's Lawyer Defends Exoneration Claim

Kofi Annan's (search) lawyer sent a letter to the committee investigating corruption in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program defending the secretary-general's claim that he was exonerated in its latest report, according to a copy obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The letter from Gregory Craig told the Independent Inquiry Committee that media reports of Annan's March 29 statement — which has since become a source of great controversy — were "inaccurate and inadequate."

Craig wrote that Annan had asked him to make sure the committee had a "clear understanding" about what was said about its second interim report about mismanagement in Oil-for-Food (search).

"It is simply not true, as many in the media have reported, that the secretary-general characterized the second interim report as having 'cleared him of any wrongdoing,' or as having 'exonerated' him with respect to any and all criticism," Craig wrote in the letter, dated April 19.

The probe led by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker (search) has released two reports so far on abuses in Oil-for-Food.

The latest, released in late March, cleared Annan of interfering in the awarding of a $10 million-a-year U.N. contract to the Swiss employer of his son, Kojo Annan (search). However, it also criticized him, saying he didn't sufficiently investigate possible conflicts of interest surrounding the contract.

When the report was released, Annan said he was relieved that the report had exonerated him of meddling in the contract selection.

"After so many distressing and untrue allegations have been made against me, this exoneration by the Independent Inquiry Committee obviously comes as a great relief," Annan said.

Annan said he accepted the committee's criticism that he didn't seek a formal investigation of the circumstances surrounding the contract. He also defended himself against that criticism, saying his actions were "fully consistent with U.N. regulations."

Annan referred Volcker to another letter written to the committee before the report came out, in which Craig, his lawyer, said it would not have been Annan's responsibility to pursue the matter further.

Annan had clearly hoped to put the matter to rest and move on with several initiatives he hopes to pursue before his term ends in 2007, including his reform proposals.

But soon after that press conference, a member of the inquiry committee, Mark Pieth, said that the secretary-general had gone too far. Pieth had been standing outside the room where Annan made the comments.

"We did not exonerate Kofi Annan," Pieth said then. "We should not brush this off. A certain mea culpa would have been appropriate."

In the letter obtained Tuesday, Craig included a transcript of Annan's March 29 comments to the media. He stressed that when Annan said he was exonerated, he was only referring to the charge that he had meddled in the awarding of the Cotecna (search) contract.

"I respectfully submit that his use of that word with respect to that particular finding should cause no fair-minded person any discomfort," Craig wrote.

Annan's statement, seemingly innocuous at the time, has touched off a firestorm of controversy and become the focus of intense criticism. It has consumed headlines at the United Nations, drawing attention away from sweeping proposals Annan has made to reform the United Nations.

Some critics, particularly Republicans in the U.S. Senate, have demanded Annan step down and say he is trying to escape culpability in the scandal surrounding Oil-for-Food, the $64 billion program which was meant to help ordinary Iraqis suffering under U.N. sanctions.

Volcker himself told Fox News in an interview that aired Tuesday, a week after the letter was sent, that exoneration was not the word he would have used in describing the report's findings on Annan.

Committee spokesman Mike Holtzman said that while the report cleared Annan of the first charge, "there's a distinction here that got lost."

"While the secretary-general clearly was exonerated on one point, the findings with respect to his conduct of an investigation into his son's involvement were severe," he said.