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Oil-for-food memo raises questions for Annan

Investigators review e-mail suggesting link to secretary-general

Kofi Annan's spokesman said "the secretary-general did not lie."
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New evidence may implicate the U.N. secretary-general.
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Kofi Annan

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Investigators probing the United Nations' oil-for-food program said Tuesday they are reviewing an e-mail that suggests a communication between Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the company that won a lucrative contract and employed his son.

Spokesmen for Annan and the Swiss company Cotecna were quick to discount the document's significance.

The one-page e-mail was written by a Cotecna vice president in 1998 just before the firm won what became a $10 million-a-year deal to authenticate shipments of food, medicine and supplies entering Iraq.

"We had brief discussions with the SG and his entourage," wrote Michael Wilson on December 4, 1998, in an apparent reference to the secretary-general.

"We could count on their support," Wilson said in the message, which was addressed to Cotecna's top three officers -- Elie Massey, the chairman; Robert Massey, the managing director and CEO; and Andre Prunaix, the senior vice president.

Wilson was writing about a late November conference organized by the French government in Paris and attended by Annan, other U.N. officials and leaders of various African countries.

Roger Carroll, a Cotecna spokesman in London, said Cotecna's leaders had "grave doubts about the reliability of this communication" and did not put much stock in the allusion to Annan meeting with Wilson on that trip.

"That is what he claims in his e-mail, but Cotecna did not authorize him to do any such thing and would have strongly disapproved of this, if indeed it occurred," Carroll said.

"It would have been inappropriate to approach the secretary-general and say, 'Can you help us with this contract?' And they had no need to do anything underhanded," Carroll said, referring to the fact that Cotecna was the lowest of six bidders for the U.N. inspection contract.

Carroll described Wilson, who is no longer with the firm, as someone who "exaggerated his own importance" and whose reports sometimes needed to be taken "with a pinch of salt."

Wilson belonged to Cotecna's oil-for-food task force, along with the Masseys and Prunaix.

After the Paris conference, they a made a December 1, 1998, presentation to the United Nations' Iraq program managers. Two days later, the program managers recommended Cotecna for the inspection contract.

Apparently unaware of that, Wilson wrote the next day to Cotecna executives, "Our chances of getting the contract are very good."

The U.N. headquarters contracts committee and an assistant secretary-general approved the recommendation, and Cotecna signed the contract by the end of December.

Wilson, one of 20 vice presidents for the firm, was chiefly responsible for marketing operations in Africa. Now in Switzerland, he could not be reached for comment.

Wilson, whose father was a diplomat from Ghana and friend of Annan, introduced Annan's son, Kojo, to Cotecna after the younger Annan graduated from college.

Elie Massey has told investigators that Kojo's connections were paramount in the decision to hire him. Kofi Annan has told investigators that Wilson was the person he "really knew at the company."

At 22, Kojo Annan began working for Cotecna in 1995, in Nigeria and Ghana. He left the firm in 1997, but was kept on the payroll until 2004 as part of a non-compete agreement and for consulting work.

Both Cotecna and the younger Annan maintain he did no work on the Iraq program.

Kojo, now 31, is one of the secretary-general's two children from his first marriage. Kojo lives mainly in Nigeria, his mother's native land.

Kofi Annan, from Ghana, became secretary-general in 1996. His second five-year term expires at the end of next year, but his oversight of the oil-for-food program has led some politicians from the United States, which pays a quarter of the United Nations' budget, to call for his resignation.

'Improper influence' denied

An interim report in March from the Independent Inquiry Committee found no evidence that the elder Annan improperly steered the U.N. contract to the firm that employed his son. (Full story)

That report was the second issued by the panel led by Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman tapped by the United Nations to probe oil-for-food irregularities. The committee plans to issue its final report next month.

"There is no change in the secretary-general's position," Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told reporters at a daily briefing.

"He said he didn't know that Cotecna was even bidding on this contract, and Volcker's conclusion in the second report was that there was no improper influence on the part of the secretary-general," Eckhard said. "It's our position that the secretary-general did not lie."

Eckhard said a review of Annan's schedule from the Paris trip in 1998 found no record of a meeting with Wilson. But a committee spokesman said the document would be investigated.

"The IIC is urgently reviewing newly disclosed information concerning possible links between U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and representatives of Cotecna," Michael Holtzman said in a written statement.

"The IIC will conduct additional investigation regarding this new information," Holtzman said.

The Volcker committee's interim report found that Elie Massey met twice with Annan before winning the contract, but the men maintain they discussed other subjects.

Cotecna has contracts to verify the shipment and prices of imports in 25 countries, primarily in the developing world. It has 4,000 employees, of which 2,500 are full time and 1,500 are freelancers.

Cotecna voluntarily turned over the Wilson e-mail on Monday to Volcker and three congressional committees probing the oil-for-food program.

Carroll said the Wilson e-mail was discovered recently by Forensic Risk, one of two firms Cotecna hired to conduct a complete audit of its oil-for-food files.

"Because the documents concerned 1998, they had to do a paper chase," Carroll said. The review covered more than 650,000 documents.

An audit of bank records by the New York-based accounting firm BDO found that an extra $306,305 in payments to Kojo Annan was incorrectly attributed by the Volcker committee to Cotecna or other firms controlled by the Massey family, Carroll said.

The company maintains it paid Kojo Annan approximately $200,000 in salary over three years and another $166,000, or $2,500 a month, as part of a non-compete agreement that ran from 1999 to early 2004.

Under the oil-for-food program, Iraq was permitted to export a limited amount of its crude oil in exchange for food, medicine and supplies.

The program, the largest humanitarian operation in U.N. history, was designed to help Iraq deal with the international economic sanctions imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq generated $64 billion in revenue through the program, which ran from 1996 to 2003 when the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

Over seven years, 248 companies incorporated in 61 countries bought 3.4 billion barrels of Iraqi crude oil.

Investigators say that Saddam exploited the oil-for-food program to extort several billion dollars in surcharges on the oil sold and kickbacks on the humanitarian goods bought. Those illicit funds were deposited in bank accounts controlled by Saddam.

Saddam also bypassed the program by selling billions of dollars of oil to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Egypt.

CNN's Richard Roth, Liz Neisloss and Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.

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