NEW YORK -- Investigators have concluded that the former chief of the Iraq oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, took kickbacks under the $64 billion humanitarian operation and refused to cooperate with their probe, his lawyer said yesterday.
While the amount of money Sevan allegedly took wasn't immediately known -- and may be as little as $160,000 -- the findings would be a major blow to the program because of his stature in the organization and the control he had over it. The program was one of the largest in history.
The Independent Inquiry Committee had planned to release its findings about Sevan next Tuesday, and had sent advance notice to Sevan's lawyer, Eric Lewis, last week. Lewis revealed the findings early and vehemently denied both claims against Sevan, whom the UN is paying a symbolic $1 a year to keep him on the payroll so he'll cooperate.
''The fact is, the committee's allegations are baseless," Lewis said in a statement. ''Mr. Sevan never took a penny, as he has said from the beginning."
The committee, led by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, refused to comment on Lewis's claims. Committee spokesman Mike Holtzman had said earlier Sevan would be one of several people considered in the Tuesday report.
''Our final judgment on him will be rendered on Tuesday," Holtzman said.
The oil-for-food program, launched in December 1996 to help ordinary Iraqis cope with UN sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, quickly became a lifeline for 90 percent of the country's population of 26 million.
Under the program, Hussein's regime could sell oil, provided the proceeds went to buy humanitarian goods or pay war reparations. Hussein's government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them, and who could buy Iraqi oil. But the Security Council committee overseeing sanctions monitored the contracts.
In a bid to curry favor and end sanctions, Hussein allegedly gave former government officials, activists, journalists, and UN officials vouchers for Iraqi oil that could then be resold at a profit.
According to Lewis, the committee will find that a small trading company called African Middle East Petroleum Co. Ltd. Inc. paid Sevan in exchange for his helping it win oil contracts from Saddam Hussein's regime. It will say that he acted ''in concert" with a friend named Fred Nadler.
Lewis said the letter of findings that Volcker's team sent to him does not spell how much he got in kickbacks.
Volcker's team has been investigating oil-for-food for more than a year. In an interim report released in February, the committee concluded that Sevan solicited oil allocations from Saddam Hussein's regime on behalf of the company, known as AMEP, between 1998 and 2001. It said Nadler was essentially his middleman and accused Sevan of a ''grave conflict of interest."
In its report, Volcker's team mentioned $160,000 in ''unexplained funds" belonging to Sevan. Sevan had disclosed the money earlier, saying it was from an aunt in Cyprus.
Lewis said Volcker's committee will also say that Sevan refused to cooperate with its investigators, apparently because he would not meet with them in recent months. Lewis acknowledged that Sevan had refused to do so since January because investigators accused him of lying or changing his testimony when he didn't remember meetings or phone calls he'd had years before.
He said instead Sevan had agreed to respond to written questions.
Lewis accused Volcker's team of treating Sevan unfairly by concealing evidence from him, relying on secret interviews with jailed members of Hussein's former regime, and questioning his integrity when he couldn't remember phone calls from years before.