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U.N. elections chief faces firing for harassment

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has decided to fire the head of the U.N. election unit, who has became a star in the world body for supervising polls in dangerous places like Afghanistan and Iraq, two U.N. officials said.
/ Source: Reuters

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has decided to fire the head of the U.N. election unit, who has became a star in the world body for supervising polls in dangerous places like Afghanistan and Iraq, two U.N. officials said.

The reasons for the dismissal of Carina Perelli, a 48-year old Uruguayan, were harassment of staff and management lapses, the officials said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Annan was expected to make the announcement Monday or Tuesday.

"A lot of people in the unit were talking about leaving because of the atmosphere she had created due to her behavior to subordinates," said one senior official. He said that Perelli, director of the Electoral Assistance Division, had been informed of the decision.

Robert Sullivan, the U.N. duty spokesman, declined comment.

Perelli was accused last August by the U.N. personnel department of presiding over an office that tolerated sexual harassment of staff. She was cleared, however, of allegations that she had misused U.N. funds for travel to Latin America.

The charges arose after she had won praise from President Bush for her role in preparing national elections in Iraq. She was outspoken at news briefings and did not try to hide obstacles in pursuing her tasks.

"It is a very sad case and incredibly unfortunate," said another U.N. official. "Professionally, she is a fantastic resource in an incredibly tough job but we had to be strict on this one."

Last December, Kieran Prendergast, the former U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, had hired an outside consulting firm to review the election department after staff complaints.

The Swiss firm Mannet SARL, in a leaked 22-page report in August, cited her personal courage and extensive knowledge of election procedures. But it said she had shown favoritism toward a small circle of employees and created an atmosphere of sexual jokes, unwelcome advances, and professional harassment.

"The work environment within the division is considered offensive by many of those interviewed and has contributed to emotional harm," the report said.

She ran a unit of 13 professionals for nine years but the report said staff turnover had been high.

Perelli can appeal the decision.

Her response to the allegations by the Swiss firm had been delayed because she helped organize Afghanistan's elections in September and Iraq's constitutional referendum in October.

She was also involved in preparations for Iraq's December elections.

One senior U.N. official who confirmed her dismissal said the organization had no choice but to let her go "considering everything else that is going on," a reference to the now-defunct and scandal-tainted oil-for-food program in Iraq.

One consequence of that investigation, which did not involve Perelli, was corruption in the U.N. procurement department, where one official in August was accused of shaking down contractors for nearly $1 million.

U.N. officials said this weekend others in the contract department were being investigated for wrongdoing and more charges would soon follow.