Lawyer Calls for Pension Reform, Says Ethics Office Decided Not to
Mention His $10,000 Monthly Swiss Subsidy
Byline: Matthew Russell Lee
of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
UNITED NATIONS, March 24 -- The UN's chief legal
officer Nicolas Michel on Monday cited a conflict of interest as
grounds to neither criticize or support the UN Ethics Office's decision
not to include the Swiss government's housing subsidy in Michel's
public financial disclosure form. Inner City Press had asked the UN
Spokesperson about the omission but had not received an answer. In a
phone conversation late Monday, Michel emphasized that he had asked
Ethics Office chief Robert Benson, who said that "the policy of
publication did not cover contributions of that sort."
It is not clear who is making up this policy, and on
what basis. The Secretary-General's web site states
that the UN's public financial disclosure is important because
it "demonstrates that UN staff members understand the
importance of the general public and UN Member States being assured
that, in the discharge of their official duties and responsibilities,
staff members will not be influenced by any consideration associated
with his/her private interests."
Inner City Press e-mailed and read this
statement to Nicolas Michel, emphasizing the word "any" and in that
light if the fact that a senior UN official was receiving a housing
subsidy of $10,000 or more every month should have been disclosed. "I
cannot answer that," Michel said. "It would be a conflict of interest."
The $10,000 a month figure is derived from Michel's
account of the origins of the subsidy. He took the UN post in May 2004,
and had a mere two and a half days to find a place to live. A colleague
told him that it would be important to live in Manhattan, to be
available for unscheduled emergencies. But of the apartments he looked
at, the rents were "from twenty to twenty-six thousand dollars a
month." Given the size of his family, Michel was looking for four or
Ultimately, Michel found accommodations for "about
half that amount" in suburban Westchester County, from which he
commutes, which he
calls less than ideal. While this has saved the Swiss government money,
it is not clear if the Swiss government put any cap on what it would
pay. Michel emphasized that the Swiss government agreed in
writing to respect the tenets of Article 100 of the UN Charter, that
Michel would be an international civil servant not subject to influence
by his country.
Still, this arrangement was not made public at the
time, nor earlier this year when the public disclosure forms went
online. Michel's form, under the heading "Income," lists the
renting-out of his house in Switzerland. On Monday Michel unprompted
told Inner City Press that he inherited the house, and rents out two of
the three floors. These rent payments from two people who
have nothing to do with the UN is publicly disclosed as income, but
$10,000 a month from a member state with interests at the UN and its
legal department is not in the public
disclosure form. Something is wrong with such a public disclosure
regime, it seems clear. Michel said twice he would not comment on this,
because "it would be a conflict of interest."
Michel went on to criticize the UN's pension system,
saying that if he leaves as he now will with less than five years'
service, he gets back only what he put in with below market rate
interest, and none of the UN's contribution. Inner City
Press has most often heard this complaint regarding
those serving in UN peacekeeping missions, who generally stay for less
than five years and feel that they are subsidizing other UN pensioners.
Michel is losing, he told Inner City Press on
Monday, some $20,000 a year.
Nicolas Michel: on the other hand...
Back on September 12, 2006, Inner City Press asked
Kofi Annan's spokesman for the identity of the one official whom the
spokesman said was receiving housing subsidy. The spokesman in
a public briefing declined to give the name. Michel was, in fact,
at that day's briefing. Afterwards, the spokesman said that the
individual wanted to come forward, would soon be coming forward. That
On Monday Inner City Press asked Nicolas Michel,
"Was that you?" Michel did not say yes, but rather stated that he
wished the spokesman had brought it to his attention at the time, that
he was always ready and willing to go public. He said he obtained
authorization for the subsidy before agreeing to accept the Office of
Legal Affairs post. He said that he had put in a call mid-Monday
afternoon to Ethics Office chief Robert Benson, to make sure they had
similar recollections, but that Benson was and is away from the office.
We will have more on this story of public financial disclosure.
Why the UN Spokesperson's Office did not provide an
answer about the omission of the housing subsidy from Michel's public
financial disclosure on Ban Ki-moon's web site is not known.
From the UN
briefing transcript of
March 18, 2008:
City Press: Mr. Michel was receiving housing
subsidy from the Swiss Government. It turns out that the Public
Disclosure of Nicolas Michel on the Secretary-General’s website for
make any mention of this housing subsidy. So I guess I want to
first of all, is receipt of a benefit like housing that comes from the
Government, the kind of thing that the Secretariat thinks should be in
Spokesperson: It was fully disclosed by Mr. Michel.
Inner City Press: But it's not in the Public Financial Disclosure.
Spokesperson: Maybe it's not in the public disclosure, but it was
fully disclosed in 2006 by Mr. Michel.
Inner City Press: I'm sorry, I don't mean to, but, so, in the internal
filed with PricewaterhouseCoopers, it was disclosed. But who is
the public financial disclosures? Because it says that the
those is to show the public what conflicts of interest the officials
and if these kinds of things are not being disclosed, then what’s it
Spokesperson: In the case of the Ethics Office and the Financial
Disclosure Form, that we have been filing since Mr. Ban came to the
Secretary-General’s post, publishing them is something that the new
Office started. So it is the responsibility of the Ethics Office
put the financial disclosures out. Before, in 2006, the Ethics
not doing it. What I can tell you is that, in the case of Mr.
everything received in terms of contributions was filed. And it
fully disclosed and the disclosure statements were cleared by the
organs. So he is not receiving any contribution in any form under
current contract that started as you know on 1 March 2007.
Inner City Press: Okay, I'm sorry, just to clarify, although it was
2006, recently when you read out the statement that now there is a
the Public Financial Disclosures, the forms that went up were for the
2006. So it seems to me he was receiving a housing subsidy during
year. This form was put up only recently, in 2008. The
Secretary-General created a website to put up Public Financial
Spokesperson: That was for 2007.
Question: It actually says right on the form it's for 2006.
the 2006 year.
Spokesperson: I can check for you what's on the website, but I
you categorically that the contributions Mr. Michel received were
authorized by the Organization before he accepted the position as Legal
Counsel. This was an arrangement, as you know, between the Swiss
and the Organization on the ground of exceptional family
The practice of exceptional authorizations was well established then
supported by relevant administrative issuances. And this was the
over a long period of time. As I said, now Mr. Michel is not
any such contributions.
Nicolas Michel is thanked for his time, particularly in the run-up to
meetings this Thursday about the UN-affiliated tribunals in Lebanon and
And, at deadline, it emerged that the incoming prime minister of
Pakistan says he will request a UN inquiry into the murder of Benazir
Bhutto. Watch this site.
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