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While UNICEF's Veneman Is Silent about Her Gucci Event, Publicist Named in Indictment for Bribery

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

UNITED NATIONS, February 12 -- With UNICEF asked to testify to the UN Security Council about children and armed conflict, Tuesday UNICEF's director Ann Veneman appeared with three others at the Council stakeout to take questions from the press. At least that's what was promised, that Ms. Veneman would endeavor to answer the questions asked of her. But when Inner City Press asked a hybrid questions, about whether UNICEF made any referral for accountability after counting most recently 42 child soldiers recruited by warlord Peter Karim in the Congolese province of Ituri, and for Ms. Veneman to describe her role in Gucci's use last week of the UN's North Lawn, which Gucci said, and the New York Times reporters, to be to celebrate Gucci's new mega-store, Ms. Veneman refused to answer. Video here, from Minute 4:59.

   While one of her co-speakers, France's foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, proffered an answer about armed conflict in another Congolese region, the Kivus, Ms. Veneman did not move one inch closer to the microphone. When Kouchner had concluded, one expected her to at least answer the question directly put to her. But no. And afterwards, while for example the UN's expert on children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, stayed by the stakeout and answered questions from the press, Ms. Veneman quickly rushed away, down a hallway from where reporters were barred.

            In the wake of Veneman's unanswering departure, two UN public information officials separately told Inner City Press to leave it alone, "It's an issue in the past." First, that may not be true. The publicist has been named in an indictment by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as having paid bribes for Fashion Week space. Reporters who sought to cover the Gucci-slash-UNICEF event were referred to Gucci's publicist, KCD Worldwide. Most UN correspondents never heard back, and were not allowed to cover the event. Since the event, KCD Worldwide has appeared by name in a criminal indictment filed by New York Attorney General Cuomo, as having paid at least $30,000 in bribes to gain Fashion Week space in New York, at the Lexington Avenue Armory. Of the bribes paid by KCD, Cuomo said "It's not how business is done. It's not right... It's not legal." To many, this sounds like Gucci's UNICEF-invited commercial use of the UN.

            In any event, since Ms. Veneman declined any question-and-answer during the build-up of the controversy, the answers must come now. There are answers needed about UNICEF's scandal in Germany as well, and not the canned answers belated uploaded to UNICEF's website. Nearly all over UN system officials, faced with similar controversies, make themselves available for press questions. Why not Ms. Veneman and UNICEF?

Ann Veneman Tuesday making an opening statement. But no answer to question

            We quote now from National Journal's CongressDaily of May 13, 2003:

After three reporters who cover the Agriculture Department "staked out" a Bush administration briefing for lobbyists with interests in U.S. agricultural trade with Mexico last week, Agriculture Secretary Veneman's press secretary said the reporters must never again stake out closed-door meetings at USDA... When reporters for Reuters, Oster/Dow Jones and Feedstuffs found out that USDA officials who had traveled to Mexico to discuss trade disputes with Mexican officials were going to brief lobbyists May 5, the reporters waited in the lobby of the headquarters building for the officials to come out of the conference room... But just as the reporters finished talking with the lobbyists, Veneman and her press secretary, Alisa Harrison, walked in the front door of the building. The reporters said Harrison walked over to them and told them they must "never" stake out a meeting at USDA again. The reporters said Harrison and threatened that if they do, she would revoke their building passes or call their editors.

            We'll have more on this.

Update past deadline: Five hours after Ms. Veneman declined to answer any questions, her spokesman provided an e-mail beginning, "had the Executive Director had the opportunity to provide the comment you asked for at today's stakeout," and then a canned answer which stated only the amount of money raised, and nothing about any lesson learned, anything that could be done better, nothing.

            While it should not be necessary to say, UNICEF staff in the field do important, priceless work. But some in the upper eschelons of management in New York seek to hide behind that work, being performed by others, to be unaccountable for decisions they make which bring UNICEF and the wider UN into disrepute. It is journalism's job to pursue this.

Click here for Inner City Press' article today on the Security Council's Children and Armed Conflict debate

* * *

These reports are also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.

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

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