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UN whistleblower asks US to withhold UN payments

In this Sept. 13, 2005 file photo, the flags of member nations fly outside the General Assembly building at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
In this Sept. 13, 2005 file photo, the flags of member nations fly outside the General Assembly building at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Adam Rountree, Associated Press

NEW YORK — A United Nations whistleblower who won his case alleging corruption in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo but received only 2 percent of the $2.2 million he sought in damages and costs asked the U.S. government Monday to withhold 15 percent of its payments to the global organization.

James Wasserstrom, an American citizen, alleged corruption involving senior officials in the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Kosovo in 2007 and was awarded $65,000 by the U.N.'s Dispute Tribunal last month. He is now a senior anti-corruption adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Wasserstrom told a news conference Monday that he was sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and key Senate and House lawmakers asking that they implement the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act requiring a 15 percent withholding of U.S. funding if an organization does not take steps to implement "best practices" to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers.

"The evidence is overwhelming that the U.N. has failed to take such steps," Wasserstrom said.

U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said the U.N. is considering appealing the Dispute Tribunal's award of $50,000 in damages and $15,000 in costs to Wasserstrom and therefore could not comment.

Wasserstrom said he is also considering an appeal.

In the letter to Kerry, Wasserstrom said he was the lead anti-corruption officer at the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 2007 when he received reports of misconduct and corruption involving three top U.N. officials as well as officials in the Kosovo government.

"The corruption allegations involved a 10 percent kickback scheme to a Kosovo minister, to be shared with a senior (U.N. peacekeeping) official, for awarding a contract to a favored bidder," he said. "The amount of the payoff was $500 million."

Wasserstrom said he collaborated on an investigation with the U.N.'s Office for Internal Oversight Services or OIOS, the agency assigned to combat internal corruption.

When senior U.N. colleagues found out about his whistleblowing, he said, "they took drastic retaliatory action" — closing his office, abolishing his post, searching his home without a warrant, seizing his property and putting up "Wanted" style posters at the gates of all U.N. buildings to restrict his entry. He said false charges were also made against him, leading to a Kosovo criminal investigation which ended quickly with no charges and a U.N. administrative investigation which cleared him of wrongdoing.

Wasserstrom told Kerry the U.N. peacekeeping mission also leaked news of the investigations to the local and international media "defaming me and doing serious damage to my professional and personal reputation."

In June 2007, Wasserstrom said he sought whistleblower protection from the U.N. Ethics Office, which commissioned a full investigation by OIOS. The agency called the actions against him "extreme" and "disproportionate" but found no evidence of retaliation. As a result, he said, his whistleblower protection ended in April 2008, and seven months later he was terminated, ending a 28-year U.N. career two years before retirement.

Wasserstrom then went to the U.N.'s Dispute Tribunal saying the Ethics Office and OIOS failed in their responsibilities.

In June 2012, Judge Goolam Meeran upheld his complaint, ruling that he was subjected to "wholly unacceptable treatment" and "appalling" acts in violation of the rule of law and human rights. The judge ordered a hearing on damages.

Wasserstrom asked for $2.2 million for losses in wages, benefits and pension as well as mental distress, defamation, damage to his professional reputation and violations of his rights.

In a March 15 decision, Meeran said "the tribunal finds it difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, highhanded and arbitrary treatment in breach of the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." He also said that "as an institution charges with the responsibility of uncovering acts of retaliation the effectiveness of the Ethics Office leaves much to be desired."

Wasserstrom was awarded $65,000.

"This is not justice," Wasserstrom told reporters Monday. "It is a travesty, and what a strong message it sends to whistleblowers: Even if you win, you lose. You will be worse off than if you had not come forward at all. And for retaliators, don't worry. There are no consequences for you."

He urged the State Department to report to Congress that it should withhold 15 percent of U.N. funds for the regular budget and the separate peacekeeping budget. According to the U.S. Mission, the U.S. assessments for 2013 are $618.9 million for the regular U.N. budget and $997.9 million for the peacekeeping budget. Under the 2012 act, the withheld funds should remain available until Sept. 30.

Wasserstrom said the U.S. should encourage the U.N. before then "to take steps to implement best practices in whistleblower protection before that time."

He suggested several steps including removing caps on compensation awards, ordering an independent external review of retaliation cases the U.N. Ethics Office failed to substantiate, disciplining retaliators, revising U.N. policy to give whistleblower protection to U.N. peacekeepers, police and victims who currently aren't covered, and issuing an apology to him and other whistleblowers.

Asked what the chances were that Congress will agree to withhold the U.N. funds, Wasserstrom said, "I'm optimistic because I think the evidence is indisputable."