(AP) NEW YORK – The independent panel investigating alleged corruption in the multibillion-dollar U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq released the names of 248 companies on Thursday that received Iraqi oil and 3,545 companies that exported goods to Saddam Hussein’s government.
Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who was appointed in April by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to lead the inquiry, also said his probe had met some resistance in France and in Iraq.
Volcker told a news conference that some of the names on the list might be dummy or front corporations but that being on the list doesn’t necessarily imply guilt.
He cited friction at the French bank BNP Paribas, where the oil-for-food program had its account, saying “they have been cooperative up to a point” with information.
“We’re entitled to have the information, and I think we’re going to get it, but it hasn’t been volunteered quite as rapidly as we might have wished,” Volcker said.
The committee has also “run into a little trouble in Baghdad” with the American accounting firm Ernst & Young, which was hired by the Iraqi Board of Supreme Audit to review more than 20,000 files from Saddam’s regime related to the oil-for-food program, he said.
Lisa Miller, spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that its chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., will send a letter Friday to French President Jacques Chirac asking for “his country’s full cooperation with the committee’s oil-for-food investigation.”
The panel on Thursday said it would investigate how the oil-for-food program was designed, administered and monitored.
It made clear the panel would examine not only the corruption at the U.N. agency, which ran the oil-for-food program, but also the supervision of the program by the Security Council and the Iraq sanctions committee.
Annan on Thursday said the scandal has hurt the U.N.’s reputation. “And that’s why we want to get to the bottom of it and clear it as quickly as possible,” he said.
Volker stressed that being on the list doesn’t imply that a company is guilty of illicit, unethical or corrupt behavior. But he said it also doesn’t mean “that some of those companies are not corrupt.”
“We know some of them are essentially temporary companies. They may be front companies. They may (have) existed only for this purpose,” Volcker said. “We don’t know everything about every company on this list, and if there is information … we would welcome it.”
Among the companies listed that received Iraqi oil were four American companies: Texaco and Chevron, now ChevronTexaco Corp.; Mobil, now Exxon Mobil Corp.; and a third company listed as Phoenix International.
ChevronTexaco and Exxon Mobil have been subpoenaed by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office for a grand jury investigation into the oil-for-food program.
Among the thousands of companies listed as exporting goods to Iraq were a handful of American ones. They included Baker Atlas, an oil service company owned by Baker Hughes Inc.; Cargill Inc.; and Continental Grain, now owned by Cargill.
Volcker said he hoped to issue a final report in the middle of next year and possibly an interim report early in 2005.
The oil-for-food program, which began in December 1996 and ended in November 2003, was launched to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Under the program, the former Iraqi regime could sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam’s government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them and who could buy Iraqi oil — but the U.N. committee overseeing sanctions monitored the contracts.
An accounting by the Independent Inquiry Committee showed that the 248 companies — which span the globe — paid Iraq the equivalent of $64.2 billion for oil, and that the 3,545 companies that exported goods to south and central Iraq received payments totaling the equivalent of $32.9 billion.
The committee also named a further 941 companies that had contracts to supply goods to then Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq under a separate arrangement administered by U.N.-related agencies.
Volcker repeatedly refused to discuss any allegations against individuals or companies.
Two weeks ago, the top U.S. investigator in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, made allegations of widespread corruption in the program, accusing the top U.N. official overseeing the program, Benon Sevan, of accepting bribes in the form of vouchers for Iraqi oil sales. Sevan has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Asked when he expected to complete the investigation of Sevan, he said called the accusation of corruption within the U.N. “a priority.”
Reminded that early on he said the investigation of Sevan would take about three months, Volcker replied: “You begin turning over the leaves and you find more and more complications.”
The committee said it will also investigate allegations concerning potential corruption in Iraq’s former government.