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Congress, UN Clash Over Oil-for-Food Investigation

The United Nations and the U.S. Congress are locked in a legal battle for control of sensitive files relating to the U.N.-run Iraq Oil-For-Food program. The files were kept by an investigator who resigned last month from a U.N. panel looking into allegations of corruption in the $64-billion program. A U.S. federal judge has issued a 10-day freeze as the two sides seek a compromise.

Federal district judge Ricardo Urbina this week issued a temporary restraining order barring former U.N. oil for food investigator Robert Parton from providing confidential documents to U.S. congressional committees.

Among the documents in Mr. Parton's possession are some he says contain evidence of wrongdoing by Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Mr. Annan appointed former U.S. central bank chief Paul Volcker last year to investigate allegations of widespread corruption and mismanagement in the humanitarian oil-for-food program.

Mr. Volcker, in turn, hired a staff of 60 investigators, including Mr. Parton, a lawyer and former U.S. FBI agent. A report issued in March by the Volcker Commission, or IIC, sharply criticized Mr. Annan, but concluded there was not sufficient evidence to accuse him of a crime.

Apparently unsatisfied with that conclusion, Mr. Parton resigned, taking with him boxes of files. When U.S. congressional committees conducting separate oil-for-food probes learned the files had been removed, they immediately asked to see them. At least one panel issued a subpoena, and Mr. Parton turned over sealed boxes of documents.

Volcker Commission spokesman Michael Holtzman, speaking by phone to VOA, charged that Mr. Parton had taken the files illegally, endangering the lives of sources. "We have information that suggests there's a vast quantity of paperwork that's stolen from the IIC that could contain information on witnesses testimony, locations, names of other witnesses, names of investigators… no one has seen what he has stolen, it has been provided under lock and key to the Congress, we're very keen to find out what it is," he said.

Those files have placed Mr. Parton at the center of a clash between the United Nations, through the Volcker Commission, and Congress.

At a hastily-called news conference last week, IIC chief Volcker suggested a compromise: Mr. Parton could publicly air his grievances if the documents were returned.

When congressional committees refused to give up the files, the Volcker commission went to federal court to seek a restraining order. IIC spokesman Holtzman called the order a 10-day reprieve to allow lawyers for the Congress, the United Nations and Mr. Parton to work out a compromise. "What we hope is an informal agreement will be reached with the Congress that will allow Congress to get information they need but allow Parton to register his complaint and it would allow us to protect our witnesses and our investigation," he said.

Mr. Parton's attorney, Lanny Davis, Tuesday described as a "malicious lie" the charge that his client had illegally removed any files. He told VOA Mr. Parton had kept files only to protect himself from what he saw as a flawed and seriously compromised investigation, and had no intention of making them public.

"Mr. Parton never intended to speak publicly or do anything publicly in this matter. He's caught between the IIC and the United Nations trying to prevent this information getting out into the public domain and the US Congress, which has issued a subpoena compelling Mr. Parton to comply. This is a matter between the United Nations and Congress, and they of course are deciding and should decide this in a court of law. And Mr. Parton will respond to whatever he is ordered to do either by a federal court or by the United States Congress," he said.

Mr. Davis explained that his client plans to comply with congressional subpoenas unless the court orders him not to.

The documents dispute is threatening to damage public confidence in the simultaneous and often competing oil-for-food investigations being conducted by Congress and the Volcker panel.

Mr. Volcker has said he plans to issue a third a final report on his findings within the next few months. But members of his staff and U.N. officials privately say the probe may drag on, jeopardizing Secretary-General Annan's hopes for approval of a comprehensive U.N. reform package at a summit of world leaders next September.