Published December 16, 2005
UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Management Christopher Burnham, who took the job only six months ago, is the man charged with cleaning up the U.N.'s still-growing scandal in its $1.4 billion procurement department. Burnham, whose last job was as chief financial officer for the U.S. State Department, is still trying to find out how big a mess he is dealing with — a task that he thinks will take until next June. He spoke recently to FOX News Senior Correspondent Eric Shawn. Following are excerpts from the interview:
FOX News: How important, how urgent, is your mission to try and get the U.N. procurement department righted correctly?
Burnham: Well, it is the top urgency; there is no doubt about that. We cannot modernize and rebuild the United Nations on a foundation that has corruption in it. This is not just my priority; it is the secretary-general's [Kofi Annan 's] priority. We now have weekly meetings with the chiefs of staff, specifically on the procurement issue. So member states and the public should rest assured that this is as serious as a heart attack.
FOX News: How widespread do you think the corruption was?
Burnham: Phase one of our investigation was an audit of the internal controls. It shows a significant lack of internal controls. In fact, it shows a lack of any internal controls with the exception of reliance on human control. And when you have human controls without systems, it severely exposes any organization to the potential of corruption and abuse.
FOX News: Would a private corporation operate with these types of standards?
Burnham: A private corporation would do exactly what we are doing. We have an internal investigation going on. We all know that there is an ongoing and expanding criminal investigation led by the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York, which the United Nations is fully cooperating with. In addition to that, we've brought in Deloitte to do the audit of internal controls, which we have presented now to the member states and to the public. And in addition to that, we will have a follow on forensic audit. It's the forensic audit which will look at past specific procurement transactions and specifically seek anomalies and irregular behavior. And when we identify those specific areas, that will be turned over to the OIOS [the U.N.'s watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services] for a thorough investigation.
FOX News: You have one investigation that has been apparently re-opened against two U.N. officials who had been cleared by the world body last year. Can you comment on that and have you re-opened this investigation?
Burnham: It is clearly our policy not to speak about specific investigations. There is no doubt that we have re-opened a number of aspects of past investigations and audits. And we are now in the process of thoroughly going through those. So, specifically with what you referred to, I can confirm for you, yes, that we have re-opened that investigation. But, I am not at liberty to say more at this time.
FOX News: What do you, what caused you to re-open that and why do you think there could be potential problems there?
Burnham: One of the problems that the U.N. has had in the past is irregular application of whistleblower protection. And one of the most important things that I have tried to contribute over the last six months is to assist in rewriting the whistleblower protection policy and to getting it right. So, in specific answer to your question, we have some very brave individuals who have stepped forward, despite the fact that we have not yet implemented our new whistleblower protection package. And because of these courageous individuals and others who have in the last two or three months come forward to try to correct the wrongs and correct the abuses that are either currently or have been perpetuated within the procurement division, we now have a plethora of investigations going on an ever-increasing and broadening investigation into wrong-doing, and I can assure anybody, member states, the global tax payer, we are deliberately and vigorously pursuing this.
FOX News: So, what you are saying is that there are a range of new allegations of corruption that could include bribery and pay-offs and this sort of thing in the procurement department.
Burnham: Your words, not mine. I can tell you that we have an ever-expanding investigation due to the numerous new reports from courageous staff members who are coming forward and saying they're not going to tolerate a community like this; we're not going to tolerate a community like this. And we are going to investigate, and we are going to go after the perpetrators.
FOX News: So far there's been in the procurement department one guilty plea, there's been a charge of another official who has plead not guilty but still indicted, and there could be more indictments. Is the U.N. willing to go as far as to see some of its officials go to jail to get this place cleaned up?
Burnham: The secretary-general very swiftly lifted immunity in the one case we already have of a guilty plea or, for that matter, for any potential future conviction. Certainly the secretary-general is committed that should federal authorities or local authorities request that immunity be lifted I would expect the United Nations to move swiftly to do so. We want any perpetrator of waste, of fraud and abuse, to be accounted for and if they are a perpetrator of corruption we want them to be brought to justice as swiftly as possible.
FOX News: The case that was closed last year was investigated by the internal investigation body, and the officials were cleared. What does that say about the status or capability of the in-house investigators in the past?
Burnham: I think that we have to look at all aspects of our administration of justice. It's also a General Assembly-mandated review for all oversight as well as for OIOS, our internal inspector general function. So, between a high-level panel that will be working in February on the administration of justice and a General Assembly-mandated review of the board of auditors, the joint inspection unit and OIOS. I think that by June or July at the latest we will have a thorough idea of how we can best guarantee going forward that this will be a community of honor and integrity.
FOX News: Do you feel that people have been given a free pass when they could potentially be guilty of wrongdoing over there?
Burnham: I think that I've been here for six months, and that I have found many disturbing things, but that I know that I have the full support of the secretary-general to move vigorously to correct these wrongs.
FOX News: Do you have confidence in the OIOS, that they can do the job that you expect them to do, or obviously you don't because you are bringing in outside auditors?
Burnham: I have confidence that we are putting into place a system that by spring of next year will produce a series of examinations and reviews and reports that will give both the member states as well as the secretary-general the impetus to act, to quickly pursue the imposition of globally acceptable internal control standards.
FOX News: There does seem to be tremendous resistance to what you are trying to do? Many nations are thinking it is the Americans trying to come over and take over the United Nations. How do you respond to that?
Burnham: We look at the United Nations as a seat of diplomacy, and I would guess that 95 percent of the time it is a seat of diplomacy of all the nations of the world, 191 here — the only place like it in the history of the world. This instance is that part of the 5 percent, when it’s not a matter of diplomacy; it’s a matter of legislation. We are trying to get a legislative body, the General Assembly, to reform how it operates, to reform how it permits or empowers the secretary-general and secretariat to operate. I have high confidence that we are going to produce something in the end. And when the press or people come together and say, "Oh my gosh, this is a contorted effort." I see this as a legislative effort and the legislative process can be a contorted process.
FOX News: Have you been surprised or disillusioned at the resistance you have faced amongst some members here?
Burnham: What's amazing is that individually virtually all member states say they are in favor of these reforms. What's interesting is even in groups of 10, or 20, or 30, we get the same commitment to reform, but yet there seems to be the perception out there that there are greater disagreements than agreements. I think that we are coming together with an agreement to bring the United Nations into the 21st century. I certainly think that there are some aspects of that that some member states believe merit further study. I don't happen to be one of them, I believe that we need to move swiftly to bring what we can in the next two or three weeks, the quick hits of reform including whistleblower protection, ethics office, the financial disclosure the secretary-general has already signed, an independent audit advisory committee.
FOX News: And if the U.N. does not reform?
Burnham: We have a Sword of Damocles hanging over us, and that Sword of Damocles is both to the reputation of the United Nations and to the fiscal integrity of the United Nations. Reputational because of course the United Nations continues to come back from the Oil-for-Food scandal as well as an ongoing investigation into United Nations procurement, but fiscal because clearly we have the United States, joined by other countries now, that have said that unless the United Nations moves forward, unless we become accountable, transparent and ethical that this has the potential to impact the amount of money paid in dues to the United Nations. And I don't know of any greater reason to act now than the potential that we could somehow not be able to fulfill our obligation to the world community, to try to make the world a more peaceful and democratic place.