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Blowing the Whistle on U.N. Corruption

October 22, 2007

On the eve of a Senate vote on the U.N.'s Law of the Sea Treaty, a former senior staffer in one of the key institutions created by the treaty says that U.S. senators should have the complete and honest truth about mismanagement and financial corruption there. The International Seabed Authority, which is one of the main organizations created by the treaty, stands to receive millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars if the Senate ratifies the pact.

Nithi Sam-Thambiah says that he was fired by Satya Nandan, the Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), for uncovering improper financial payments to top officials, including Nandan himself. Nandan is a veteran of the U.N. bureaucracy.

"I'm sure there will be others who will be interested" in testifying, he said. "But because of my capacity as chief of finance and administration, I had a better idea of what was going on and the payments that were being made. I was in an advantageous position because I saw the money coming in and where the money was going. And when I started looking into it, management got very uncomfortable."

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is now before the Senate for ratification and could be voted on by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as early as next week. The committee, however, has only heard laudatory things about the ISA, such as Professor Bernard Oxman's claim that it was a "lean" organization with few employees. The committee has not conducted any hearings into the actual operations of the ISA.

"Before any money is given" to the ISA, Sam-Thambiah warned, "I think we should ensure that we are not putting money into a bucket full of holes. Honesty and integrity of the management and the rationale for the funding should be established. "

While a lot of money is flowing through the organization, very little business is actually being done, and most of the actual work is handled by high-priced consultants, mostly the personal and life-long friends of the Secretary-General (SG), he charged.

He said that he has plenty of documents proving the extent of incompetence and mismanagement and is willing to give evidence before the Senate if he is called upon to do so. The chaos and internal conflict that existed is unimaginable and from what he hears, five years later, things have not changed.

"I have letters and memos" about questionable contracts and payments, he said. "Everything is documented. I have enough evidence to show that there was mismanagement at the highest levels. It was all done with official memos from the highest authorities."

The case of Sam-Thambiah, as we noted in a recent column, was brought before the U.N. Administrative Tribunal for adjudication. He was hired in December 2001 and fired in July of 2002, one month after he sent a memo to Nandan seeking a meeting with him to understand the various sums of money he was claiming in addition to his salary. The memo, he explained, was necessary as he found it difficult to get an appointment to meet with the SG in person. Nandan said he never received the memo, a claim Sam-Thambiah called laughable. He said the memo, outlining various improper payments to the SG, was personally handed over to Nandan's personal assistant Avril Pereira. "If you read the memo, then you might tend to believe there's a good reason why he would claim not to have received it," he said.

This columnist provided questions in writing to Constance C. Arvis, the State Department official in charge of ocean affairs, about the Sam-Thambiah case, the budgets of the ISA, and related matters. But no answers have been forthcoming.

The basic truth, Sam-Thambiah insists, is that he was fired for exposing corruption in the organization. That is why he filed his complaint with the U.N. Administrative Tribunal. But this body dismissed his complaint, citing claims by Nandan that Sam-Thambiah was incompetent and that he lied about his credentials to get the job. The tribunal also reported that the office of the ISA Secretary-General intended to raise allegations against him of sexual harassment and consumption of pornography on office time.

Sam-Thambiah said all of these allegations are "totally false and wholly unfounded and deliberately designed to discredit" him and give Nandan a cover story for firing him. Sam-Thambiah said the tribunal unfortunately conducted a flawed and cursory inquiry, a "quick and easy job."

As we stated in our previous report, there is no way to determine if any of these allegations against Sam-Thambiah were true or whether they were peddled in an attempt to discredit him and divert attention from his charges of mismanagement and irregularities in the ISA.

There is also no way to determine, without access to the internal documents and testimony of all parties involved, what the ultimate truth is. However, a confidential source in the United Nations has come forward to say that it is common knowledge that there is a lack of administrative and ethical oversight of the ISA. This source alerted us to the basic charges and counter-charges in the Sam-Thambiah case, which is included on the website of the U.N. Administrative Tribunal.  

The Tribunal stated in its decision that, unlike other cases that come before the Tribunal, in the absence of an independent fact-finding body, it does not have the mechanism to verify the truth or falsity of allegations and would probably not accept such cases in the future. However, it proceeded to conclude that the SG's decision was within his authority. Sam-Thambiah said that it failed to look into all the procedural flaws and the lack of due process in the decision, let alone the factual inaccuracies and false charges leveled at him. He has a lawyer reviewing legal options.

The issue, he emphasized, is not whether he was fired or not but what is being done by the ISA with the money given by member states. "I was there for six months," he emphasized. "I am a trained auditor. I am a chartered management accountant, I have an MBA. I know what I am doing and I know what I am saying. There was a lot of mess. I innocently and foolishly dug into it too deeply and upset people."

Senator David Vitter, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for an additional hearing into the treaty, citing the fact that witnesses at the two brief hearings which have been held were stacked 9-2 in favor of the pact.

A Senate hearing into the Sam-Thambiah case might be able to get to the bottom of the sensational allegations and determine, apart from the constitutional and policy implications of ratifying the treaty, whether the ISA deserves millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

But there is no indication that the committee chairman, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, or the ranking Republican, Senator Richard Lugar, who are both treaty supporters, want to hear from any more witnesses.

"The [U.N.] culture," he told the paper, is one in which "the hypocrite, the liar, the fraudster, the nepotist and the dilettante is more likely to survive and progress than the average 'thinking' reasonable man or woman."

You can contact the Senate Foreign Relations Committee through the following telephone numbers: the Majority (Biden) phone is (202) 224-4651 and the Minority (Lugar) phone is (202) 224-6797. Individual members of the committee and their contact information can be found here.

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