UNITED NATIONS -- Secretary General Kofi Annan said yesterday that he was ''very disappointed and surprised" that his son had continued to receive payments until this February from a firm that had a contract with Iraq's oil-for-food program, the subject of numerous corruption investigations.
Annan told reporters that he had been working on the understanding that payments to his son, Kojo Annan, from the Swiss-based firm Cotecna Inspection S.A. stopped in 1998, ''and I had not expected that the relationship continued."
But on Friday, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said Kojo Annan's lawyer had informed the independent panel appointed by the secretary general to investigate allegations of corruption in the oil-for-food program that the younger Annan continued to receive monthly payments through February 2004.
The disclosure was the latest embarrassment for Annan and the United Nations over the humanitarian program, which was instituted in December 1996 to help Iraqis cope with sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Annan yesterday stressed that his son was an independent businessman ''and I don't get involved with his activities and he doesn't get involved in mine."
Annan has said his son joined Cotecna at the age of 22 as a trainee in Geneva, before he became secretary general. The firm was hired by the United Nations on Dec. 31, 1998, to authenticate that food, medicine, and other goods entering Iraq corresponded to a list of goods approved for import.
In a statement in April, Cotecna said Kojo Annan's full-time employment -- which focused entirely on its activities in Nigeria and Ghana and had nothing to do with the oil-for-food program -- began in 1995 and ended in December 1997, after which he was retained as a consultant until early 1999. It did not mention any further payments.
The United Nations previously said Kojo Annan stopped receiving monthly payments from Cotecna at the end of 1999. But Eckhard said Friday he continued to be paid because he had an open-ended no-compete contract that allows an employee who leaves a company to receive money to ensure he won't set up a competing company.
''There is nothing illegal in this," Eckhard said. Also, continuing investigations by the US Congress and the United Nations have not shown any wrongdoing by Cotecna.
US Ambassador John Danforth discussed the oil-for-food investigations with the secretary-general yesterday, and was asked afterward whether the United States still has confidence in Annan.
''I don't think the US government rushes to judgment until all the facts are in," he said, urging that the investigation be exhaustive and reveal all the facts to avoid any charges of a cover-up.
Five US congressional panels have been pressing the independent inquiry headed by former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to hand over internal UN documents for their own oil-for-food probes. But Volcker told the Senate that his panel won't provide documents until its investigative reports are issued.
The oil-for-food program allowed Hussein's regime to sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War.
Annan reiterated that he has ''no involvement with granting of contracts, either on this Cotecna one or others." But the secretary general said he understood ''the perception problem for the UN, or the perception of conflict of interests and wrongdoing."
Asked whether he was disappointed and angry with his son for taking the money and not disclosing it, Annan replied: ''Naturally I was very disappointed and surprised, yes."