UNITED NATIONS – The committee probing the U.N. oil-for-food program announced Tuesday it will again investigate Secretary-General Kofi Annan after an e-mail suggested he may have known more than he claimed about a multimillion-dollar U.N. contract awarded to the company that employed his son.
The e-mail describes a brief encounter in which officials from the Swiss company Cotecna Inspections S.A. discussed its bid for the contract during a summit in Paris in late 1998. Through his spokesman, Annan said he had no recollection of such a meeting.
If accurate, the e-mailed memo would contradict a major finding the Independent Inquiry Committee made in March — that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Annan knew about efforts by Cotecna, which employed his son Kojo, to win the Iraq oil-for-food contract.
In a statement, the Independent Inquiry Committee said it was “urgently reviewing” the memo.
“Does this raise a question? Sure,” said Reid Morden, executive director of the probe.
The memo is a major blow to Annan, who had claimed he was exonerated by the committee’s March interim report. While the investigation into his actions was never officially closed, he clearly hoped that the committee was done with him after it announced its finding in the report.
In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Cotecna said it found the memo as part of its “continued efforts to assist investigators” and had turned it over to U.S. congressional committees probing oil-for-food and the U.N.-backed committee led by former U.S.
Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.
The Geneva-based firm again denied that it committed any wrongdoing in obtaining the contract to certify deals for supplies Iraq imported under the oil-for-food program.
“Cotecna once again confirms that it acted at all times appropriately and ethically in its bidding for, winning and performing that contract,” the company said.
Morden said investigators with the probe had planned to interview Annan in the coming weeks as part of its investigation into management of oil-for-food. “This certainly adds another topic,” he said.
The Dec. 4, 1998, memo from Michael Wilson, then a vice president of Cotecna and a friend of Annan’s, mentions brief discussions with the secretary-general “and his entourage” at a summit in Paris in 1998 about Cotecna’s bid for a $10 million-a-year contract. He wrote that Cotecna was told it “could count on their support.”
Wilson also wrote that Cotecna was told to respond “as best we could” to questions from a meeting with U.N. officials that took place three days earlier in which the contract was discussed.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said U.N. officials reviewed the records of Annan’s Paris trip “and there is no mention in that trip record of any exchange with Michael Wilson.”
“We spoke to the secretary-general who is in Paris today, and he has no recollection of any such exchange,” Eckhard said.
The memo also refers to a “KA” who made courtesy calls to various African leaders at the Paris summit. That would appear to be Kojo Annan, who is known to have been in Paris at the time.
That’s significant because it raises the possibility that Kofi Annan discussed the Cotecna bid with his son, and not with Wilson. Eckhard said it would be reasonable to assume that Kofi and Kojo Annan had met, though he knew of no record of it.
Both Annans deny any link between Kojo Annan’s employment and the awarding of the U.N. contract to the company.
In an interim report in March, Volcker’s committee accused Cotecna and Kojo Annan of trying to conceal their relationship after the firm was awarded the contract.
It said Kofi Annan didn’t properly investigate possible conflicts of interest surrounding the contract, but cleared him of trying to influence the awarding of Cotecna’s contract or violating U.N. rules.
The revelation of the memo will likely give new ammunition to U.N. critics of the work of Volcker’s team. In April, a top Volcker investigator resigned, reportedly because he believed its March report was too soft on Annan.
The investigator, Robert Parton, later turned over boxes of documents from his work to one congressional committee and is under subpoena to do so with two more. But Volcker’s committee filed a restraining order, saying the documents should not be released.
Later Tuesday, a Washington judge issued a fourth extension of the restraining order to give all sides more time to work out a deal. Volcker has suggested allowing Parton to give a statement to the congressional committees if they withdraw their demands for the documents.