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At UNDP, Denial of Retaliation and Barring of Council Belied by E-mails as North Korea Scandal Unfolds

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 11 -- As the scandals surrounding the UN Development Program proliferate, UNDP spokesman David Morrison on Monday denied "categorically" that his agency has engaged in retaliation or threats against whistleblowers.

            Asked by Inner City Press why persons knowledgeable about the counterfeiting and other issues at UNDP in North Korea would be precluded from bringing Staff Union or counsel with them to question and answer sessions, Mr. Morrison declined to confirm this and insisted that UNDP's Associate Administrator Ad Melkert has does everything possible to encourage people to come forward. "That's our line," Mr. Morrison said. Video here, from Minute 1:11:02.

            But UNDP e-mails show that as recently as June 5, an individual whom UNDP has described as its officer in charge of Audit wrote to a witness that "we cannot accept to have a representative from the Staff Council present at this meeting."

  We pause to note formal findings of UNDP's Ombudsman:

"management has known of a visit in advance, retaliatory action has sometimes been taken the members of staff have been warned about the consequences of saying certain things to the Ombudsperson -- a term that has been dubbed 'pretaliation.' There are also many cases of staff being primed as to what to say to the Ombudsperson."

            The UNDP Ombudsman also found that

"Most disturbing of all is when a visit from the Ombudsperson which throws light on abusive behavior actually makes the situation worse for those members of staff in an already vulnerable position. An abusive manager will sometimes use intimidation or try to discover by a process of questioning and elimination the names of those who have consulted the Ombudsperson. When no effective action has been taken after the visit of the Ombudsperson to remedy the situation, there are instances of where the abusive behavior has intensified, renewed attempts have been made by the abuser to find out who spoke to the Ombudsperson and retaliatory action has been taken against anyone suspected of doing so."

   The above-referenced individual, who will remain unnamed due to fear of further retaliation, has written that

"Even though I was on an SSA Contract (performing Core Duties with Managerial Approval 2 + 3) - Since 2005 I reported misconduct through my chain of command, including Kemal Dervis, Ad Melkert, Akiko Yuge, Darshak Shah, David Lockwood, Julie Anne Mejia, and Staff Union, but when no action was taken to cease such misconduct and criminal behaviors, using the protections of Section 4 of ST/SGB/2005/21 [the UN's whistleblower protections], I reported such misconduct to an entity outside of the established internal mechanisms because such reporting was necessary to avoid substantive damage to the Organization's operations."

            This still holds true. On Monday, Inner City Press asked UNDP's David Morrison about his statement that no retaliation has taken place as UNDP, including in light of a complaint that was filed last week on June 5 with the UN Secretariat's Ethics Office. Mr. Morrison spoke of "an individual on a short term contract" which was "simply not renewed."  Video here, from Minute 58:07.

            Inner City Press asked Mr. Morrison to confirm that the individual in question was, in fact, the head of operations of the UN in North Korea for some time. Holding to the line that the individual in question is a mere "short term" contractor, Mr. Morrison declined to answer. He also adopted a new line, that if an Ethics Office complaint has been filed, he will not comment anymore. But in his briefing's opening, he had claimed that no retaliation occurred.  (In fact, on June 7 Inga-Britt Ahlenius of the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services spoke of a whistleblower complaint that had just been filed with the UN's Ethics Office.)

OIOS' Ms. Ahlenius on June 7

   Mr. Morrison alluded to a spreadsheet provided last week to the Chicago Tribune, saying it would be on UNDP's web site. Three hours after Morrison' briefing, and at least three days after it was given to the Chicago Tribune, it was still not on the web site. Mr. Morrison referred to just-completed communications with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization; note that earlier this year, in response to Inner City Press' questions, FAO finally responded:

    On paying for North Korean officials' travel, a practice that UNDP has said it will stop, FAO has provide descriptions of projects which include flying two officials from the Kim Jong Il's Ministry of Fisheries to Norway, and "study tours abroad" in "OSDRO / DRK / 603 / SWE - Support to Agricultural and Horticultural Production and to the Coordination of Emergency/Rehabilitation Interventions in Agriculture/Food Security in 2006-2008 ($2,334, 430, ending date September 30, 2008)."

   Myong Hyok Kim has worked on these "aquaculture" and official-flying projects. Inner City Press emailed Myong Hyok Kim days ago seeking comment for this story, but none was forthcoming. (These email inquiries to Pyongyang, cc-ed to Rome, did however finally get programmatic answers.)

            On paying in hard currency, FAO does so -- and through UNDP, in volumes that UNDP did not disclose in its statements about how much was being paid in Euros to the North Korean government.  FAO has told Inner City Press that its

"Staff are paid in Euro by the UNDP on behalf of FAO. UNDP charges FAO for every transaction it carries out on behalf of the Organization. As to the Assistant FAO Representative, upon instruction from FAO Headquarters, with copy to FAO-China, the UNDP Pyongyang releases the money directly to the staff member, in cash. As to seconded staff, FAO China prepares Agency Services Requests (ASRs) for payment of the two seconded staff, and send them to the Regional Office in Bangkok, which in turn, forwards them to the UNDP in Pyongyang."

            On January 29, Inner City Press asked UNDP whether its statements about the size of its DPRK payments included FAO and other agencies' funds. UNDP has responded that "program expenditure information we presented covers only UNDP programs, not those of other agencies." There still remains unclarity.

            Mr. Morrison also did not answer a question about when UNDP's local staff in North Korea, seconded from the Kim Jong Il government, finally lost access to UNDP's computer system, called ATLAS. While chiding Inner City Press for previously reporting that computer access continued past a point that UNDP could reasonably have been expected to suspend access, specifically with regard to a UNDP "driver," who Morrison said would never have had access, Morrison has not said who had access, nor when and stopped. [These will, of course, be reported if and when UNDP provides the information it promised to "check back to you" with, which often does not happen, for example with regard to corruption at UNDP in Myanmar, confirmed but left unspecified, including by Ad Melkert on June 6, further reported on by Inner City Press on June 8.]

            While Mr. Morrison stated that the U.S. inquiry into UNDP in North Korea began in December, there exists among other things a November 17, 2006 letter from the U.S. mission to Kemal Dervis, Administrator of UNDP. While Mr. Dervis has sought to placate the most active members of UNDP's executive board by, for example, committing that UNDP will no longer do business with entities such as Macao-based Zang Kok Trading, ultimately the buck must stop with him. 

  On Monday, Ban Ki-moon said, according to his staff's transcription, that

"I am concerned of course about news reports, and new allegations, about North Korean activities about misusing UNDP funds. I am going to write a letter to the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, asking him to consider to continue this investigation, including the possibility of sending auditors to North Korea."

  For now, Mr. Ban appears to feel that the UN Board of Auditors will be enough. Doubts are growing.  At the UN's noon briefing, Inner City Press asked Mr. Ban's spokesperson if Mr. Ban was raising the issue with ACABQ at the scheduled Monday noon meeting? No, the spokesperson answered. Does she stand behind a letter in Monday's WSJ? She replied that it was written before the new allegations. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: I see that you had a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal today, and Iím wondering if the reports over the weekend changed... you said that UNDPís position had been substantiated, that is, was a small amount of money and that none of its was misused.  The reports over the weekend seem to speak differently.  Does that change, the letter...

Spokesperson:  Well, before I wrote that letter, I was not aware of the new allegations that surfaced, and youíll get the answers to a number of your questions from David Morrison when he comes in a few minutes, after Ashraf gives his briefing.

Inner City Press: The Secretary-General is meeting with the ACABQ [Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions], then the Fifth Committee, at 12 p.m.  Was the North Korea-UNDP issue one of the topics?

Spokesperson:  No.  The essential topic is the reform proposal, and then the discussion by the ACABQ of that reform proposal.

Developing...

Click here for Inner City Press' June 1 story on other UNDP questions.

    Again, 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.

Feedback: Editorial [at] innercitypress.com

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

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540  Matthew.Lee [at] innercitypress.com

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

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