A bipartisan array of congressional legislators vented frustration at a small but economically important United Nations body, which one lawmaker dubbed “the FIFA of U.N. agencies,” and its autocratic chief, who has been the subject of a probe into illegal break-ins of the offices of his own staffers.
According to a U.N. spokesperson, the completed report of the investigation is “currently being reviewed and finalized” by the U.N.’s internal watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services, in a nebulous process of uncertain duration that added to the congressional sense of frustration.
The spokesman emphasized that the U.N. Secretariat headed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “is not involved in the finalization of the report and it is signed off by the head of OIOS.”
“I am bewildered and shocked by this,” declared Christopher Smith (R-NJ), chairman of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which laid out a long roster of accusations against Francis Gurry, the chief of the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Smith dubbed WIPO “an organization that, unfortunately, appears to have lost its way” under Gurry, that “potentially put our intellectual property at risk,” and “is in need of major reform”—although who should perform that task seems difficult to discern.
According to Smith, Gurry had been contacted on Feb. 3, then sent a written invitation a week in advance to attend the hearing, which was convened by three separate subcommittees of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Gurry replied in writing that the notice was “too short,” according to a spokesman for Smith.
An email from Fox News to Gurry after the session ended, asking for his response and including the testimony of witnesses, received no reply.
“We seem to see the FIFA of U.N. agencies,” declared Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), referring to the recent corruption scandal in international soccer. “The only question for me is, what should Congress do?”
Or, more pointedly, what could Congress do, about the scandal-tarred but obscure U.N. agency, which has moved fitfully into the limelight for years due to the actions of Gurry, who according to one the whistleblowers at the hearing has said that “he didn’t care what the U.S. thought, because WIPO was an independent agency of the U.N. and was not required to follow U.S. law.”
Or, perhaps, any law at all. The whistle-blowers among other things reviewed a series of highly publicized controversies involving the WIPO chief, which included the secretive transfer of high-end U.S.-made computers and other technology to nuclear-ambitious North Korea despite U.N. and U.S. sanctions against the regime; the opening of new regional patent offices in China and Russia without permission from WIPO’s 188 member states; and an alleged pattern of harsh retaliation against staffers for letting outsiders, including the U.S. State Department, for making his actions known.
Two of Gurry’s former top aides who are now whistleblowers added new texture to those actions, and added a few more. (A third witness, Matthew Parish, is an attorney representing WIPO’s staff union.)
“None of this equipment was necessary for the operation of the North Korean patent office,” declared James Pooley, an international patent lawyer and former WIPO Deputy Director General, who revealed Gurry’s alleged unconcern for U.S. laws.
“Over the entire 33 year span of its membership in WIPO, North Korea submitted a grand total of 25 international patent applications,” Pooley said. “And I knew that the computers were ‘dual-use’ technology that could easily have been applied to telemetry calculations or other military use.”
He added that a high-tech electronic firewall contained in the shipment “had only one purpose: to keep North Korean citizens from gaining access to the Internet.”
A new fillip from Pooley was a claim that in 2012 the WIPO chief hired a U.S. business advisory firm, Manchester Trade, for $193,500 to “help him avoid an investigation” after the high-tech transfers to North Korea went public.
(Repeated calls by Fox News to the mobile phone of Manchester’s president, Stephen Lande, who was travelling abroad, went unanswered before this article was published, as did calls and an email to David Lewis, a Manchester vice-president.)
Among other things, Pooley said Gurry personally prevented him and the other whistleblower who testified on Wednesday, former Gurry strategic advisor Miranda Brown, from appearing in 2012 before the entire House Foreign Affairs Committee in the wake of the North Korea revelations, something Brown confirmed.
Gurry was accused by the committee chairperson at the time, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, of “obstructing this committee’s investigations.”
Both Pooley and Brown—the latter, like her former boss, a native of Australia—testified to the subcommittee members that they had asked Gurry to abort the controversial shipment of high-tech goods to North Korea, and had been ignored.
Brown said she “immediately called the U.S. Mission in Geneva to report the situation to U.S. Government officials”—which led Gurry to accuse her of disloyalty and ultimately to tell her he would not renew her contract because “I was disloyal and too close to the member states and in particular the U.S., and that I had cooperated with this [House] committee.” Brown finally resigned from WIPO “under duress,” she testified.
Before then, both she and Pooley had learned of Gurry’s secret decision to open WIPO offices in China and Russia without member state consent, which the whistle-blowers called a payoff –along with the North Korea tech transfers—for those nations’ support in the WIPO Director General’s initial election in 2008.
Yet even after that deal too became public, the U.S. did not oppose Gurry’s March, 2014, re-election, and he was stoutly defended by Australia’s then-Ambassador to the U.S., Kim Beazley, who declared that his own government stood behind Gurry’s candidacy.
In response to questions from Fox News, a spokesperson for Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, declared that the “Australian Government supported…Gurry’s candidacy for WIPO Director General based on his accomplished record. Australia continues to support the United Nations investigation running its course without pre-judging outcomes.”
“Australia’s interest remains in seeing this matter resolved in a proper and timely fashion,” the spokesperson added.
Before he left the agency at the end of his five-year term, Pooley also filed a complaint that detailed the break-in allegations against Gurry, inspired, according to the complaint, by his desire to get DNA samplings from employees he considered likely to have written anonymous letters against him. (DNA testing proved that none of the suspected employees had done so.)
Nowadays, WIPO staff union lawyer Parish testified, the WIPO Director General’s grip on power and intolerance for dissent is even stronger. Last year, he told legislators, Gurry dismantled WIPO’s entire internal justice system, and replaced it with a system that gave him an even tighter grip.
Under the new disciplinary system, Parish said, Gurry can “suspend a staff member without pay upon an accusation leveled by him [Gurry]; he could then give a staff member seven days to respond in writing to his accusations; and then he could decide, unilaterally, whether or not to terminate their employment without compensation.”
All three of the witnesses told legislators that WIPO badly needed an overhaul that would crimp the power of Gurry and his predecessors—and that some of the reforms might be good for the entire U.N. system.
Among other things, Pooley suggested that an independent board oversee the WIPO executive and “ensure that it is beyond the power of the Director General to influence its composition.”
The organization also needed to ensure that complaints of wrongdoing against agency chiefs “will always be handled by a professional organization that is independent of the U.N.,” and that the U.S. make moves to “establish and enforce a U.N.-wide requirement that whistleblower retaliation be handled by a professional organization that is independent of the U.N.”
The U.S., he said, should also work to “reconsider the grant of traditional, near absolute diplomatic immunity to U.N. agency executives.”
Brown had some tougher suggestions. Her first: that the listening U.S. legislators “call for Mr. Gurry’s removal from office,” on the grounds that his “leadership is corrupt, dangerous for the organization and that he has himself engaged in wrongdoing, possibly of a criminal nature.”
She also suggested they demand the whistle-blowers’ reinstatement, with compensation, at WIPO, and call for “special protection” for whistleblowers across the U.N. “who report allegations of wrongdoing by U.N. agency heads.”
Finally, she suggested that the legislators help ensure that WIPO’s next Director General—and the next Secretary General of the U.N. as well—commit to protecting whistleblowers from retaliation.”
Many of the legislators appeared to be willing to do many of those things, as well as call for a copy of the OIOS report on Gurry that is still awaiting “finalization.”
Whether those things get done will require action by an authority that was not in the hearing room: the Obama Administration.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell