UN chief defends his record fighting corruption amid criticisms by former top officials

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lashed back Monday at the stinging criticism leveled by two former senior U.N. officials, saying it was "unfair" to raise questions about his record on battling internal fraud and corruption.

Ban, in his first public response to the lengthy criticisms of his former oversight chief and former head of a U.N. white collar fraud unit, said at a news conference that he has pushed accountability and ethics "from day one" since becoming the U.N. chief in January 2007.

"If anybody, or any member state within the U.N. system, or any colleague of mine in the U.N. secretariat accuses me on the issue of accountability, or ethics, then I regard it as unfair. It was I who have taken this accountability, and the highest standard of ethics by the U.N. secretariat has been held from day one," Ban said.

"And I have made much progress, again, unprecedented progress. It was I who have established for the first time an ethics office in the U.N. system. Can you believe it?" he told reporters.

The U.N. ethics office was, in fact, created on Jan. 1, 2006 by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a year before Ban succeeded Annan, based on initiatives endorsed by leaders attending a 2005 World Summit. Its purpose is to assist the U.N. chief in ensuring that all staff members uphold the highest standards at work.

Two times in the past month top U.N. officials who were in charge of fighting corruption within the world body have blasted Ban's leadership and accused him of leaving the oversight agency in tatters by ignoring U.N. hiring rules that require filling vacancies based on experience and qualifications.

Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the Swedish former auditor general who stepped down as U.N. undersecretary-general for oversight last month, detailed her frustrations with Ban in a 50-page confidential "end-of-assignment" report to him that was leaked to the press. Carman Lapointe-Young of Canada, a former World Bank chief auditor, will replace her in mid-September.

Ahlenius largely blamed Ban for the mess that she said she was unable to fix at the Office of Internal Oversight Services that she headed since mid-2005, because Ban nine times blocked her from hiring a highly respected former U.S. prosecutor as permanent head of the investigation division.

The AP reported last week that an American prosecutor, Robert Appleton, filed a 76-page grievance accusing Ban of blocking his hiring to the U.N.'s top investigative post because of discrimination based on gender and nationality. Appleton headed the U.N.'s special white collar fraud unit, known as the Procurement Task Force, from 2006 to 2008.

While Appleton's grievance before the U.N. Dispute Tribunal focuses on Ban's hiring practices, which he calls a breach of U.N. Charter and General Assembly resolutions, the claims more broadly add to the questions raised about Ban's record battling internal fraud.

Appleton wrote that Ban and other senior officials "are avoiding their own accountability for a system that is dysfunctional" and said the failing of the Ban administration toward OIOS "calls into question the respect these high ranking officials have for the most basic principles of the organization, and the fundamental rule of law."

Ban, however, blamed the mess at OIOS largely on "a lack of proper procedures" in filling vacant posts. He said he had given "100 percent independence in operation in the work of OIOS," contrary to Ahlenius' complaints.

Among the key reasons that Ban won U.S. backing to become U.N. chief in January 2007 was his pledge to restore the U.N.'s reputation — battered by corruption in purchasing and sexual abuses by peacekeepers — through effective oversight.

His chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, has said the U.N. will now investigate its ability to investigate itself.

Ahlenius had been counting on Appleton to fix the investigation division after two global recruitment rounds in 2008 and 2009 determined he was the best candidate to become the division's permanent director.

As Ahlenius tried unsuccessfully nine times to persuade Ban to hire Appleton, she increasingly relied on Michael Dudley, a career U.N. official, to temporarily run the division, with far-reaching consequences.

Seven months after Ahlenius made Dudley the division's acting director, he applied for the job that she wanted Appleton to have. Ahlenius, who referred to Dudley in her memo as the sole internal candidate, noted a hiring panel unanimously agreed he could not be recommended for the job.

Ban did not answer a question Monday about how he thinks the investigation division is being run, nor why he has launched a new probe into the U.N.'s ability to investigate itself when there have been similar studies in the past.

By late 2008 Ahlenius had put Dudley in temporary charge of the investigation division, making sure it continued to combat fraud and corruption.

But since the start of 2009, Dudley has let go of all but one of Appleton's former white collar crime specialists. The number of complex fraud and corruption probes completed by the division sharply declined and 175 cases the task force didn't have time to complete were closed or left in limbo.

Dudley told AP by e-mail his division completed 356 investigations last year, and had 252 open investigations at the start of this year. Senior OIOS investigators told AP, however, those figures reflect the raw allegations received and assigned a case file, many of which require little follow up, not those involving extensive investigation.