Tuesday, December 27, 2005

James Bone defends himself against Kofi Annan's attack

A couple of posts below, I feature a piece by Claudia Rosett discussing nasty attacks by Kofi Annan against British journalist James Bone in the course of a press conference. Rosett observes that the personal attacks had the effect of deflecting attention from the uncomfortable subject of a certain Mercedes-Benz. In this Wall Street Journal opinion page piece, journalist James Bone gives his own explanation of what happened and why, here:

(Update, January 29, 2006. Kojo Annan agrees to pay car duties in re the Mercedes Benz, here.)

Where Is the Car?
Why Kofi Annan said I'm not a "serious journalist."


Wall Street Journal opinion page
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

UNITED NATIONS--Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general and Nobel peace laureate, is normally the meekest of diplomats. He is so accommodating he once described Saddam Hussein as a man "I can do business with." These days he spends a good deal of time on the phone with Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Yet he seems to have problem with me.

It was with some amusement that I found myself the target of a decidedly undiplomatic tirade by the U.N. chief at a news conference last week. The usually mild Mr. Annan erupted in an ad hominem attack, calling me "cheeky" and belittling me as an "overgrown schoolboy." Although I have covered the U.N. in minute detail for The Times of London since 1988, and have known Mr. Annan for almost all that time, he suggested I was not a "serious journalist."

The cause of Mr. Annan's ire was a question I put to him about a Mercedes car that his son Kojo had imported into Ghana (and which cannot, now, be traced). The facts indicate that Kojo had bought the car in his father's name, thereby obtaining a diplomatic discount and a tax exemption totaling more than $20,000. The question about the car--to which Mr. Annan again refused to give a satisfactory answer--is part of the wider probe into his role in the U.N.'s Oil for Food scandal. Despite months of investigation, important questions about the integrity of public officials remain unanswered. If we are serious about U.N. reform--as Mr. Annan claims to be--they must be resolved.

It is a time-honored tradition at the U.N. to bury a scandal by conducting an inadequate inquiry and then declaring the matter closed. Mr. Annan did precisely that when news first broke in January 1999 of his son's involvement with a Swiss firm that won a U.N. contract in Iraq.

At the time, the secretary-general turned to a respected financial figure, Joseph Connor--a former chairman of Price Waterhouse World Firm who was then the U.N.'s under-secretary-general for management--to investigate. The inquiry--which had a crucial paragraph mysteriously added to Mr. Connor's signed version--took less than a day. It found that Kojo had resigned from the Swiss firm, Cotecna Inspection SA, before a U.N. contract was awarded to the firm. We now know that was false.

Before attacking me at his news conference last week, Mr. Annan bemoaned that the press had been misled by "deliberate leaks." Sadly, I can confirm that. I was shown Mr. Connor's confidential report--including the added paragraph--by a furtive Annan aide. I regret I incorporated that U.N.-sponsored falsehood into a piece I filed. ("Geneva firm has 'nothing to hide' in oil-for-food row": The Times of London, April 24, 2004).

Perhaps it should be no surprise then that when the Oil for Food scandal finally broke last year, Mr. Annan turned to another respected financial figure--former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. Mr. Volcker's multi-volume report is now in jeopardy of becoming a partial replay of Mr. Connor's fiasco. Even after it was all over, Mr. Volcker told the Los Angeles Times "To this day, I still don't know" if Mr. Annan was aware of his son's business dealings with the U.N.

Probably the most egregious flaw in Mr. Volcker's report is its handling of a contemporaneous document referring explicitly to discussions with the secretary-general in Paris in November 1998 about Cotecna's bid. The internal company memo--a "trip report" written by Annan family friend and then-Cotecna executive Michael Wilson to other Cotecna officials who were also in Paris at the time--says in part: "We had brief discussions with the SG and his entourage." Despite the memo's use of "we," the Volcker inquiry held that Mr. Wilson did not meet personally with the U.N. chief, and concluded that "The committee has not been able to corroborate Mr. Wilson's claim that he had a meeting with the secretary-general about Cotecna's bid for the inspection contract as set forth in the Paris memorandum." (My italics.)

This is a distortion in one or Mr. Volcker's key findings: The memo said "we" not "I." Never did Mr. Wilson claim that he met personally with Kofi Annan. Indeed, the Volcker report itself says Mr. Wilson "repeatedly asserted" that he did not meet the secretary-general in Paris. Mr. Volcker's team did discover, however, that Kojo Annan, in Paris as part of the Cotecna contingent, met his father in the U.N. chief's room at the Hotel de Crillon on Nov. 28, 1998. The Volcker report failed even to address the possibility that the "we" in the memo might refer to talks between the U.N. secretary-general and his son, or between the U.N. chief and another Cotecna representative (i.e., one who was not Mr. Wilson).

This is where the missing Mercedes comes in. The Mercedes was purchased by Kojo Annan in his father's name four days before the Hotel de Crillon meeting--and about two weeks before Cotecna won the U.N. contract. The use of the U.N. chief's diplomatic status qualified the car for a $6,541 discount on the purchase price and a $14,103 tax exemption when it was imported to his native Ghana. Mr. Volcker's investigators found a memo on the computer of Mr. Annan's personal assistant asking him to authorize a letter to Mercedes. "Sir, Kojo asked me to send the attached letter re: the car he is trying to purchase under your name. The company is requesting a letter be sent from the U.N. Kojo said it could be signed by anyone from your office. May I ask Lamin to sign it?" the assistant wrote.

Neither Kofi Annan, his aide Lamin Sise, nor his assistant, Wagaye Assebe, can recall what happened, and the original documents have disappeared--but somehow the Mercedes was purchased with the diplomatic discount anyway. Abdoulie Janneh, the U.N. official who arranged the tax exemption in Ghana was recently promoted to U.N. under-secretary-general, in charge of the Economic Commission for Africa.
Amid the clutter of unanswered questions, one query has the virtue of simplicity: Where is the car? I have been asking this for weeks at the U.N.'s daily briefing. It was this question that triggered Kofi Annan's outburst. He clearly wants me to shut up. I'm afraid, Mr. Secretary-General, that would be the wrong thing for me to do. Every schoolboy knows that.

(Mr. Bone is New York correspondent of The Times of London.)

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