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Oil-for-food probe looks anew at Annan

Nick Wadhams Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS – The committee probing the U.N. oil-for-food program announced Tuesday it will again investigate Secretary-General Kofi Annan after two e-mails suggested he may have known more than he claimed about a multimillion-dollar U.N. contract awarded to the company that employed his son.

One e-mail described an encounter between Annan and officials from Cotecna Inspection S.A. in late 1998 during which the Swiss company’s bid for the contract was raised. The second from the same Cotecna executive expressed his confidence that the company would get the bid because of “effective but quiet lobbying” in New York diplomatic circles.

If accurate, the new details would cast doubt on a major finding the U.N.-backed Independent Inquiry Committee made in March – that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Annan knew about efforts by Cotecna, which employed his son Kojo, to win the Iraq oil-for-food contract. The Associated Press obtained the e-mails Tuesday.

Through his spokesman, Annan said he didn’t remember the late 1998 meeting. He repeatedly has insisted that he didn’t know Cotecna was pursuing a contract with the oil-for-food program.

The $64 billion oil-for-food program was aimed at helping ordinary Iraqis suffering under U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but it has become the target of several corruption investigations since the Iraqi leader was ousted.

Annan appointed the Independent Inquiry Committee, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, in an effort to settle the issue for good.

A key issue has been whether Annan was guilty of a conflict of interest because the United Nations awarded the $10 million-a-year contract to Cotecna while Kojo Annan was a consultant for the company.

In an interim report in March, Volcker’s committee accused Cotecna and Kojo Annan of trying to conceal their relationship after the firm won the contract. It said Kofi Annan didn’t properly investigate possible conflicts of interest but cleared him of trying to influence the contract or violating U.N. rules.

In a statement, the committee said it was “urgently reviewing” the two e-mails, which it received from Cotecna on Monday night.

“Does this raise a question? Sure,” said Reid Morden, executive director of the probe.

The previously unknown e-mails will be a new distraction for the U.N. secretary-general, who had claimed he was exonerated by the interim report and had hoped that the committee was finished investigating his personal involvement.

Morden said investigators had planned to interview Annan soon as part of its investigation into management of oil-for-food. “This certainly adds another topic,” he said of the Cotecna e-mails.

In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Cotecna again denied wrongdoing in getting the contract to certify deals for supplies Iraq imported under oil-for-food.

The first Dec. 4, 1998, e-mail from Michael Wilson, then a vice president of Cotecna and a friend of both Kofi and Kojo Annan’s, mentions brief discussions with the secretary-general “and his entourage” at a summit in Paris in 1998.

He wrote that Cotecna’s bid was discussed and Cotecna was told it “could count on their support.”

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said U.N. officials reviewed the records of Annan’s Paris trip and found no record of any exchange with Michael Wilson. He said Annan also didn’t recall talking to Wilson then.

Wilson’s memo also refers to a “KA” who made courtesy calls to various African leaders at the Paris summit. That could be Kojo Annan, then a Cotecna consultant.

Eckhard said it would be reasonable to assume that Kofi and Kojo Annan would have met in Paris if Kojo Annan was there, though he knew of no record of it.

The second e-mail from Wilson, sent minutes after the first, discussed a meeting that took place three days earlier with U.N. procurement officials to talk about the contract bid.

Under a section labeled “conclusion,” it said: “With the active backing of the Swiss mission in New York and effective but quiet lobbying within the diplomatic circles in New York, we can expect a positive outcome to our efforts.”

Most telling about that e-mail, however, was a brief mention in which Wilson said Annan’s approval of the bid was required. U.N. rules in fact did not require Annan to approve those decisions, something officials here have repeatedly stressed.

In that light, Wilson’s belief that Annan’s approval was necessary sheds light on his thinking at the time toward the secretary-general. Wilson could not be reached for comment Tuesday.