UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, asked Tuesday if he would resign after a critical report concerning the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, replied, "Hell, no."
Annan was speaking after the release of a report by investigators, who said Tuesday there was not enough evidence to show that Annan knew of a contract bid by his son's employer for the oil-for-food program in Iraq. However, they criticized the U.N. chief for not properly investigating possible conflicts of interest in the matter.
While Annan said he accepted that criticism, he was happy with the report's findings he committed no wrongdoing.
"After so many distressing and untrue allegations have been made against me, this exoneration by the independent inquiry obviously comes as a great relief," he said.
The report released Tuesday accused the company, Cotecna Inspection S.A., and Annan’s son, Kojo, of trying to conceal their relationship after the contract was awarded. It also faulted Kofi Annan for conducting a one-day investigation into the matter, saying it should have been a more rigorous, independent probe.
The report’s conclusion was not the clear vindication that the secretary-general had wanted, though the investigation led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker did not accuse the U.N. chief of corruption or any other wrongdoing.
Annan: 'Cleared... of wrongdoing"
In a brief statement, Kofi Annan ignored the brunt of investigators’ criticism, saying only that on the “key issue” of the Cotecna contract, he was found to have done nothing wrong.
“As I had always hoped and firmly believed, the inquiry has cleared me of any wrongdoing,” Kofi Annan said.
At a press conference after the report was released, Volcker said the investigation found no evidence that Kofi Annan improperly influenced the process by which Cotecna was selected for an inspection contract under the oil-for-food program.
“Our investigation has disclosed several instances in which he might, or could have become aware, of Cotecna’s participation in the bidding process,” Volcker said. “However, there is neither convincing testimony to that effect nor any documentary evidence.
“Taking all of this into account, the committee has not found the evidence is reasonably sufficient to show that the secretary-general knew that Cotecna had participated in the bidding process in 1998,” Volcker said.
Kojo Annan worked for Cotecna in West Africa from 1995 to December 1997, and then was a consultant for the firm until the end of 1998 -- when it won the oil-for-food contract. He remained on the Cotecna payroll until 2004 on a contract to prevent him from working for a competitor in West Africa.
Although Tuesday’s report found no wrongdoing by Kofi Annan, it clearly faulted the secretary-general’s management of the world body and his oversight of the oil-for-food program.
The $64 billion oil-for-food program was the largest U.N. humanitarian aid operation, running in 1996-2003. Saddam Hussein’s government was allowed to sell oil in exchange for humanitarian goods as an exemption from U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In a bid to curry favor and end sanctions, Saddam allegedly gave former government officials, activists, journalists and U.N. officials vouchers for Iraqi oil that could then be resold at a profit. U.S. congressional investigators say Saddam’s regime may have illegally made mope than $21 billion by cheating the program and other sanctions-busting schemes.
The report is the second issued by Volcker’s team. It coincides with allegations of sex abuse by U.N. peacekeepers and of sexual harassment and mismanagement by senior U.N. staff and comes a week after Kofi Annan called for the biggest overhaul of the United Nations in its 60-year history.
“I think we all share the hope and confidence that the results of our investigation ... may contribute to the larger objective of a reformed U.N., a U.N. capable of commanding and maintaining the support of its member states and the public at large,” Volcker said.
Calls for resignation
Some critics, including several U.S. lawmakers, have been calling for Kofi Annan to resign. Even before the report was issued, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., reiterated his call for Kofi Annan to “put the interests of the U.N. ahead of his personal interest” and step down.
Volcker’s Independent Inquiry Committee found that Kojo Annan was not forthcoming with either his father or the committee and accused him of consistently trying to hide the nature of his relationship with Cotecna. It said an investigation was continuing into Kojo Annan’s dealings with the program.
In a letter annexed to the report, Kojo Annan’s lawyer, William R. Taylor, rejected any claim that Kojo Annan had not been wholly cooperative with the committee. But Taylor admitted he had not told his father the entire truth.
“He regrets the embarrassment that omission caused to his father and to the United Nations and accepts responsibility for it,” Taylor wrote.
Company 'disguised relationship'
The Volcker report said that while Cotecna “generally has cooperated” with the investigation, the committee “concludes that Cotecna has made false statements to the public, the United Nations, and the committee.”
After a British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph, reported the link between Kojo Annan and Cotecna in January 1999, the report said, “Cotecna disguised its continuing relationship with Kojo Annan by routing the payments that were made to him” through three different companies, in response to instructions from the secretary-general’s son.
The secretary-general initiated an inquiry through his staff, which concluded within a day that Kojo Annan’s connection to Cotecna was not known to the officials handling contract bids.
Volcker’s investigation, however, concluded, that Kofi Annan’s inquiry “was inadequate” and that the issue should have been referred to the U.N. legal office or internal watchdog.
In an attached letter, Kofi Annan’s lawyer defended the secretary-general’s action, saying he acted on the advice of three advisers.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.