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As UN Pension Board Partially Rebuffs Him, Cocheme Speaks of Eternity and Burnham

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, July 16 -- As the UN Pension Board meeting ended on July 13 without acting on CEO Bernard Cocheme's recommendation to be given more power, Cocheme stopped in the UN basement hallways and spoke with Inner City Press for an hour. Cocheme began with two questions. "Why do you write so negatively about me? Why do you call one of my three recommendations to the board a 'coup'? That word has special meaning in the UN."

            Inner City Press rattled off some pieces of the picture. There's the investigative audit by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services finding irregularities in the awarding of information technology contracts. (Click here for a redacted copy of the audit.)

   There's Cocheme's seeming dismissal of the audit's recommendations to among other things take action on two Pension Fund staffers, who are both still at the Fund, and one of whom, Dulcie Bull, Cocheme proposed a post upgrade for. The upgrade, like others, was "deferred."  Cocheme's attempt to get 43 more posts was apparently cut down to 25 posts -- Inner City Press asked Cocheme, since the Pension Fund doesn't have a press officer, to forward the final approved documents, but sixty-some hours later, most of them weekend, that has not happened. Here's hoping.

            Cocheme's explanation of the audit is that the Year 2000 required the issuance of emergency contracts. Inner City Press pointed out that Y2K was hardly an unforeseen emergency, and asked about a more recent request by Cocheme, that he be given more power to contract with JPMorgan Chase, since obtaining banking services is also, he says, an emergency.

            Could this constitute bad planning? Cocheme said no, and blamed the lack of speed and "professionalism" of the UN's Procurement staff.

            Inner City Press pointed out that not only the UN, but most government agencies, use a Request for Proposals process, in which they define what they want, and solicit bids and select the lowest qualified bid. Cocheme scoffed that in the private sector, banks come forward with their own proposal and contacts, which clients then negotiate around.

            But the UN is not the private sector.

            Likewise, Cocheme advanced his theory of why the Pension Fund should be independent from the UN and its Secretariat, represented for now by UN Controller Warren Sach. Pension funds have "long time horizons," Cocheme said, "longer than employers. The employer may disappear, but the Pension Fund must remain."

            While certainly a philosophy that would resonate with the workers in the U.S. airline and automobile industries, one UN Pension beneficiary Inner City Press asked about it expressed outrage. "So he's saying that under Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations will be going out of business? He's saying that Bernard Cocheme is eternal?"

Bernard Cocheme: employers like the UN come and go, Pension Funds are forever

            During the hour-long discussion standing in the UN's Vienna Cafe, Cocheme recounted how then-USG for Management Chris Burnham told him, "I know how to run a pension fund." Burnham oversaw the pension fund of Connecticut while an official in that state.

            "But you were the sole trustee," Cocheme recalls himself replying. Cocheme said that many of the Pension Board members' antipathy toward UN Controller Warren Sach goes back to the "time of Burnham," and his push-through of the outsourcing plan for $10 billion of the Fund.

            In terms of current power-fights, Inner City Press pointed to Cocheme supporters' letter to Ban Ki-moon criticizing Sach's travels to Europe to lobby against what's been called on this site "Cocheme's coup." Cocheme threw up his hands. "That is their letter, not mine," he said.

            Cocheme took credit for trying to get the Pension Fund to live up to the Socially Responsible Investment principles of the UN Global Compact. Inner City Press asked, is the Pension Fund currently abiding by such principles?

            "No," Cocheme said, "not yet. It has been too slow." He questioned, as Inner City Press has, how the UN Pension Fund could be said to be living up to its commitments to SRI and the Compact if $10 billion of the Fund is privatized outside of the UN, and subject to passive management such that socially irresponsible stocks -- Cocheme mentioned armaments -- cannot or will not be avoided. "That's a good question," Cocheme said.

            Another UN staff member conferred with later on Friday opined that, with Cocheme's coup shot down and rejected, it is not surprising he would try to turn on a charm offensive.

            But to be fair, Cocheme similarly stopped and presented his views after his one and so far only press conference at UN headquarters on February 28. In that interview, he characterized some of his employees not grateful enough, from his perspective, for having their jobs, and unfairly called an ex-union leader at the Pension Fund a heavy drinker, when referring to the effects of acupuncture. And this is Cocheme playing good cop to the Pension Fund's Peter Goddard's bad cop, according to impacted staff. Imagine the spewed views of Peter Goddard, then. We will continue on that topic.

            What can be said is that Bernard Cocheme has a philosophy of pension fund power. Whether his philosophy is appropriate for the Pension Fund of a public institution like the United Nations system is another question... To be continued.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540