'my son, my son'

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    'My Son, My Son'

    By William Safire
    The New York Times
    November 29, 2004

    Washington — Thanks to Claudia Rosett, an enterprising reporter writing in The New York Sun, the world now knows that some information put out by Secretary General Kofi Annan about his son's involvement with a Swiss inspection company at the heart of the U.N. oil-for-food scandal is untrue.

    At a luncheon at "21" in New York this summer, Annan came over to me to complain politely that my series suggesting U.N. maladministration was unfair. When I asked about the consultant fee paid to his son Kojo that may have influenced the award of a U.N. contract to Cotecna Inspection, the secretary general said that the allegation (originally reported in The Sunday Telegraph in London) had been "thoroughly investigated" by the U.N. and there was "nothing to it."

    He later insisted that ours was a "private conversation" (though no off-the-record restriction was requested or given), but this denial was consistent with Kofi's public statement in April about the contract award: "Neither he nor I had anything to do with the contracts for Cotecna." Note the plural "contracts" - after a low-ball bid, a later contract was much more lucrative - and his clear indication that his son joined him in denial.

    The story put out by the U.N. Secretariat at the time was that the son, Kojo, had resigned from Cotecna just weeks before the U.N. switched its fast-growing inspection business to the Swiss firm. Though such a timely termination looked fishy on its face, the absence of post-contract payments to Kofi's son was the basis for the U.N.'s claim that there had been no conflict of interest or nepotism.

    Last week the truth was outed. The U.S. attorney's office in New York is in competition with the U.N.'s "independent" investigation, whose Paul Volcker - while stonewalling angry Congressional investigators - has grand jury help from the Manhattan district attorney's office. I suspect a subpoena forced Kojo to hire a lawyer, whom reporter Rosett tracked down and The Sun had its first world beat.

    The lawyer confirmed that Kojo received payments of $2,500 per month for four years after he supposedly severed his relationship with Cotecna - up to February of this year, when Iraqis blew the lid off the U.N.-Saddam-French-Russian conspiracy.

    When confronted with the falsity of previous U.N. denials, the secretary general's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, pleaded: "There is nothing illegal in this." You see, um, the payments to Annan's son were part of an "open-ended no-compete contract." After all, what could be illegal about getting paid for not joining a competing inspection company, which Cotecna probably took as assurance that nobody else would get the inside track?

    "We previously thought they had ceased," Annan's embarrassed aide said of the payments. He stuck grimly to the line that U.N. officials "who gave Cotecna the contract had no idea that Kojo Annan worked for Cotecna," but carefully left himself an out: "and that continues to be our belief."

    In the same way, there are still officials of the oil-stained U.N. Secretariat who profess to believe the repeated denials of Benon Sevan, the longtime right-hand man of Kofi Annan put in charge of what became history's largest swindle.

    Of course, in a $20 billion ripoff, $125,000 to the boss's son for doing nothing is chump change. But it should lead to questions for the son: what are his associations with families in the oil industry? (Yamani or ya life!) Did he lie to his father about four years of fees from Cotecna, or did Kofi fail to ask him? Did Kojo inform Sevan about the fees, or know about any lucrative oil vouchers given by Saddam to Sevan?

    For the father: Will he now share with Congress, which supplies 22 percent of the U.N. budget, his "thorough investigation" of his son's Cotecna connection? Did he learn of the "nothing illegal" fees only last Tuesday, as his aides say? Has he since asked his Absalomic son if the secretary general can stand by his April "nothing to do with" statement about Cotecna?

    This marks the end of the beginning of the scandal. Its end will not begin until Kofi Annan, even if personally innocent, resigns - having, through initial ineptitude and final obstructionism, brought dishonor on the Secretariat of the United Nations.

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