A Senate panel says it has obtained Iraqi documents providing new evidence that the former head of the U.N. oil-for-food program made up to $1.2 million through oil deals with Saddam Hussein’s government.
The staff of the Senate Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee says the documents suggest that Benon Sevan didn’t just serve as intermediary in Iraqi oil sales, as investigators have alleged, but may have benefited financially.
Sevan, who faces U.N. disciplinary charges, has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer, Eric Lewis, said Monday, “Benon Sevan never received any oil allocations – period.”
The $64 billion oil-for-food program allowed Saddam’s government to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy food and other humanitarian items. It is the subject of a series of investigations because of allegations that Saddam manipulated the program through bribes and kickbacks.
Questions about Sevan’s role are among several issues the subcommittee was exploring at a hearing Tuesday. Its chairman, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said the panel was looking into “a pattern of fraud, waste and total mismanagement among a number of people at the highest levels.”
The subcommittee was looking into questions raised about possible conflicts of interest involving Kojo Annan, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s son. Kojo Annan worked for Cotecna, a Swiss company that won a contract to inspect humanitarian goods imported under the program.
Kojo Annan has denied having anything to do with the program. But the subcommittee, in a document prepared for the hearing, said he couldn’t account for his activities during a 15-day visit to New York during the 1998 U.N. General Assembly. That was shortly before Cotecna was awarded the contract.
Subcommittee staff, who briefed reporters on condition they not be identified, said they interviewed Kojo Annan and he could not explain the meaning of a cryptic internal memo he wrote before his visit. That memo said he had put together a “machinery,” centered in New York, “that will facilitate the continuation of contacts established and assist in developing new contacts for the future.”
Committee staff are also presenting documents they say show that an employee of Saybolt International BV, a Dutch company hired to inspect oil shipments, appeared to receive a $105,819 bribe to allow an illegal oil sale in violation of Iraqi sanctions.
John Denson, Saybolt’s general counsel, said the company has been examining the allegations since they were first raised last year, and is waiting to see the documents obtained by the subcommittee. He pledged to “take all appropriate action.”
He said the employee, identified by the subcommittee as Armando Carlos Oliveira of Portugal, has denied wrongdoing and continues to work as an inspector.
Questions about whether Sevan personally benefited from Iraqi oil sales have lingered for more than a year. His name was on a secret Iraqi list of recipients of oil vouchers which entitled bearers to cut-rate Iraqi oil. Saddam used the vouchers to pay bribes and influence foreign officials.
An interim report this month by a three-member committee accused Sevan of a conflict of interest for soliciting oil deals on behalf of a Panamanian company, African Middle East Petroleum. The committee, created by Kofi Annan and headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, said it was investigating whether Sevan received any financial benefit.
The congressional subcommittee said Iraqi oil ministry documents it obtained “clearly indicate that Benon Sevan himself was receiving allocations and that he was not merely requesting allocations” for Fakhry Abdelnour, the owner of AMEP.
“At the very least, these documents suggest that the Hussein regime believed that its allocations were destined for Sevan, and not” for Abdelnour and AMEP.
It said the documents “may reveal violations of numerous U.S. criminal laws,” though subcommittee staff noted that Sevan has diplomatic immunity.