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UN Reinstates Lone Official Fired in Oil- For-Food Scandal

The United Nations has reinstated the only official fired over the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. The official was awarded back pay, but did not receive the apology he had sought from Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Secretary-General Annan formally notified former oil-for-food program official Joseph Stephanides Tuesday that the decision to fire him has been reversed. The notification came in a letter signed by an undersecretary-general on behalf of Mr. Annan, who is away from headquarters.

Mr. Stephanides had been the only U.N. staff member dismissed in connection with allegations of corruption in the 64-million dollar humanitarian aid program. He was fired last May after oil-for-food investigators determined he improperly influenced the award of a lucrative contract to a British firm.

Mr. Stephanides was a mid-level official. He had maintained that his actions were proper and had been authorized by diplomats charged with overseeing the program.

A staff disciplinary appeals board ruled last month that Mr. Stephanides had done nothing wrong. It recommended that he be reinstated with full back pay, as well as an apology from Secretary-General Annan for emotional suffering and damage to his reputation.

But the letter from Mr. Annan makes no apology, and maintains that Mr. Stephanides did violate staff rules. In a telephone interview, Mr. Stephanides expressed satisfaction at being reinstated, but said he would stand by his demand for an apology.

"I am deeply disturbed that secretary general has rejected recommendation of his own impartial inquiry," Mr. Stephanides said. "It appears for lack of any substantive argument in defense of its position, the U.N. administration has contrived completely new and fabricated charges. The secretary-general does not identify source of its assumption and does not address finding that these rules were inapplicable since the amount of the bids was already public information, a decision had been reached on the award of the contract, and my actions were fully authorized."

Mr. Stephanides' attorney George Irving told VOA he believes his client had been made a sacrificial lamb (scapegoat) by top U.N. officials facing pressure in the face of allegations of widespread corruption in the oil-for-food program.

"Joseph Stephanides was the only person as a result of this $35 million investigation that was actually disciplined by the secretary-general," Mr. Irving said. "None of the higher level staff who were involved in the decision making process were sanctioned in any fashion, and I believe the charges that were brought against Joseph were proven to be not properly founded either in law or in fact and that they were essentially charges that were made in order to demonstrate a political motivation on the part of the secretary general to do something.

Mr. Irving said he would take the case to the next level in the appeals process to further clear Mr. Stephanides.

U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe declined to answer a barrage of reporters' questions about the case.

A panel led by former U.S. Central Bank chief Paul Volcker found that one senior U.N. official, oil-for-food program chief Benon Sevan, appeared to have been involved in corrupt activities. But Mr. Sevan effectively retired before the investigation was complete, and left the United States.

The oil for food program operated from 1996 to 2003. It was intended to provide essential food and medicine to Iraqis hit by U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein's government. But an 18-month investigation concluded that Saddam was able to manipulate the program to his own advantage. It documented how he amassed huge profits through oil smuggling and used lucrative contracts to buy influence at the U.N. Security Council.