updated 5/7/2005 2:50:00 AM ET 2005-05-07T06:50:00

The chief of the U.N. oil-for-food probe accused Congress of jeopardizing his work and asked a House committee to return secret documents, saying the lives of some witnesses could be at stake. But the Republican lawmaker who heads the committee promptly refused.

Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker is seeking to dampen controversy over recent claims by Robert Parton, a former FBI agent who quit the U.N. probe in protest. Parton says Volcker’s inquiry played down evidence that incriminated Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

At a news conference Friday, Volcker reiterated that there simply was never enough evidence to prove that Annan influenced the awarding of an oil-for-food contract to the Swiss company that employed his son, Kojo Annan. But he again insisted that his committee finding was not the exoneration that Kofi Annan claimed it was.

‘We’re not playing games here’
He also asked the House International Relations Committee to return secret documents Parton has given it, warning that witnesses could be threatened if anything leaks out.

“We’re not playing games here, we are dealing — and let me just emphasize this — in some cases with lives,” Volcker said.

But Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, the chairman of the committee, rejected the request, saying in a statement late Friday that he appreciates “the gravity of the concerns” but his panel has “an obligation to continue its inquiry.”

Three congressional committees are investigating allegations of kickbacks and bribes in the oil-for-food program. The $64 billion program allowed Saddam Hussein’s government to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

It was set up to help Iraqis cope with international sanctions the United Nations imposed on Saddam’s regime after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

On Thursday, Parton turned over boxes of documents from his investigative work to Hyde. A subcommittee led by Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., has also subpoenaed him and said it expected to receive documents from Parton on Monday.

Panel’s credibility at stake
U.S. lawmakers have also accused Volcker of undue secrecy, which Volcker has angrily denied. Earlier in the week, the exchanges got so heated U.N. officials began to fear Volcker’s probe could lose face and its findings be seen as irrelevant.

Volcker said Friday his main concern was to keep his probe credible so it could keep doing its work. His committee is expected to finish this summer with a report that will examine how much countries on the U.N. Security Council knew about the oil-for-food wrongdoing.

Volcker suggested that concern over the upcoming findings might be behind the turmoil.

“I do think that as our investigation proceeds, there are people, and I’m not talking about committee chairmen, who would just assume we go away,” he said.

On the issue of Parton’s disagreement, he acknowledged there had been debate within his committee over how to interpret its findings on Annan.

“On the basis of the facts reported, others may — and have — drawn other inferences or judgments,” he said.

Volcker offers deal
To settle the discrepancy, Volcker proposed a deal: He offered to lift Parton’s confidentiality agreement and allow him to make a statement “when he chooses” addressing his disagreements with the committee over Annan’s role.

In exchange, the congressional committees would withdraw their subpoenas and return all committee files to it.

“This is critical to the committee’s continued work with witnesses, governments and organizations who have placed their trust in our confidentiality,” Volcker said.

Parton’s lawyer did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

While Hyde dismissed Volcker’s offer, the other committees backed off somewhat.

Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican leading one investigation that is considering a subpoena of Parton, said he appreciated Volcker’s efforts to “clear the air” over Parton’s resignation.

Shays issued a statement also calling Volcker’s move a positive step and suspending the demand that Parton testify.

“While the details of such a public statement are yet to be worked out, I believe a voluntary presentation by Mr. Parton could meet Congress’ legitimate need for information while maintaining the integrity of the Volcker committee’s investigation,” Shays said.

Still, Shays’ spokeswoman Sarah Moore said the committee still wanted Parton’s documents.

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