A U.N.-appointed commission is urgently reviewing fresh information that raises new questions about Secretary-General Kofi Annan's role in awarding lucrative contracts under the oil-for-food program. A newly-discovered memo suggests Mr. Annan may have known more than he previously admitted about a contract awarded to a company that employed his son.
An e-mail written by a senior official of Swiss-based firm Cotecna tells of a meeting with Secretary-General Annan a week before the company won a $10 million a year oil-for-food contract. The meeting took place in December 1998 in Paris, where Mr. Annan was attending a Franco-African summit.
In the e-mail, Cotecna vice-president Michael Wilson wrote that he had held brief discussions with the secretary-general and his entourage, and was told, in his words "we could count on their support".
The e-mail was first disclosed in Tuesday's New York Times newspaper. The Times reported that Cotecna officials recently discovered the document by accident during a search of company archives and turned it over to U.S. Congressional investigators.
If accurate, the e-mail could challenge one of the main findings of the independent oil-for-food inquiry led by former U.S. central bank chief Paul Volcker. In a report issued in March, the Volcker commission concluded there was not enough evidence to show that Secretary-General Annan knew about Cotecna's bid to win the contract.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard Tuesday said Mr. Annan and his staff have no recollection of any meeting with Michael Wilson during the Paris trip.
"The e-mail reported today says Michael Wilson met with the secretary-general," he said. "Our trip records show no record of such a meeting, the trip coordinator has no recollection of such a meeting, the secretary-general has no recollection of such a meeting."
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Volcker committee said it had only learned of the e-mail's existence late Monday night. The statement said the newly-disclosed information was being "urgently reviewed", and that it would re-open its investigation of the matter.
Mr. Annan is in Paris for meetings with French and British leaders. But spokesman Eckhard said the secretary-general stands by earlier statements denying any link between his son's employment and the oil-for-food contract award to Cotecna.
"There's no change in the secretary-general's position. He said he didn't know that Cotecna was even bidding on this contract. And Volcker's conclusion in the second report was that there was no improper influence on the part of the secretary-general in the awarding of that contract," said Mr. Eckhard.
While the Volcker panel found no evidence of improper influence or any violation of U.N. rules, it did criticize the secretary-general for failing to thoroughly investigate possible conflicts of interest.
It also charged that Cotecna and Kojo Annan had tried to conceal the extent of their relationship after the contract was awarded. The younger Annan had earlier worked for the Swiss firm, and continued to receive monthly payments totaling more than $300,000 until early last year.
The oil-for-food program operated from 1996 to 2003, allowing Saddam Hussein's Iraq to sell oil to buy humanitarian supplies at a time the country was under U.N. sanctions. But investigators have shown how Saddam quickly took advantage of the program to earn billions of dollars in illegal profits, part of which he used to try to buy influence on the Security Council.
Cotecna was hired to oversee shipment of the goods going to Iraq under the program.
In addition to the Volcker inquiry, several U.S. Congressional committees are also conducting investigations into various aspects of the scandal-ridden program. The Volcker panel is expected to issue its final report in August.