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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 107

A Half-Million-Dollar Vacation at U.N. Expense

By Thalif Deen, UN Bureau Chief, Inter Press Service

United Nations, 20 October, (IPS): The U.N. Secretariat has doled out over half a million dollars on a single staffer -- an assistant secretary-general (ASG) -- who has been temporarily suspended with full pay while under investigation on charges of mismanagement and fraud.

Since the investigations have dragged on for nearly 21 months, Andrew Toh, a national of Singapore and head of Central Support Services (CSS), continues to enjoy the luxury of an extended vacation at U.N. expense.

Toh has told the Secretariat that it should either bring charges against him or, in the alternative, have him reinstated in his job. But so far, the Secretariat has failed to do either.

"I am technically still ASG/OCSS though under suspension with full pay. What this means is that I am not permitted to enter the U.N. premises and treated like a common criminal," Toh told IPS last week.

The average annual gross salary of a senior ASG is around 240,000 dollars, before deductions. Toh, whose contract is now on a month- by-month basis since it expired in June, has been picking up his salary for the last 21 months while holidaying at home.

Since January 2006, the Secretariat has also been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the investigation, including legal fees on this single unresolved case.

In an interview with IPS last January, one year after Toh was suspended, Ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon of Singapore said predictably: "Does Mr. Toh continue to sit at home through 2007 without any charges filed against him?."

"I wonder how much all this costs? The salaries of the staff placed on administrative leave notwithstanding, how much does it take to maintain all these investigators and investigations?" Menon asked.

"All we have asked is for his case to be handled in a fair and transparent way. If there is clear evidence of impropriety, he should be charged accordingly. If there is no evidence against him, he should be reinstated and properly vindicated," he added. Toh told IPS the U.N. Secretariat has still not decided as to what it should do with the findings of the Joint Disciplinary Committee and the Panel on Discrimination and Other Grievances that had recommended that Toh be reinstated, paid compensation and given a public apology.

Asked about the Toh case, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Monday: "We have very carefully considered and examined [his case], and I am going to soon make a decision on his case, and he will be informed." But he did not say when.

"As far as I am concerned, and as I have told you many times, accountability and transparency of senior officials are very important for me. This case is going through the U.N.'s internal justice system," he added.

Toh has said that since some of the accusations against him were made by former Under-Secretary-General for Management Chris Burnham, he wants Ban to lift Burnham's diplomatic immunity so that Toh can pursue Burnham in court.

Asked about the immunity issue, the secretary-general said: "I am not in a position to make any comments on hypothetical questions. This case has not been instituted legally."

Briefing reporters Tuesday, U.N. spokesperson Michele Montas also refused to answer what she described as "hypothetical questions".

"At this point, you know, there has been no (civil law) suit that we know of," she said, pointing out that "there has been an announcement that there might be a suit".

"We don't have anything on that. What I can say about Mr. Toh's case is that it is still within the U.N.'s internal justice system. And I think I said it yesterday, it is very important for the integrity of this process that it be allowed to continue without interference. So that's our position on the Toh case."

Told that Toh has been "vociferous in his complaints about his proclaimed innocence", Montas said: "Well, there is no gag rule against Mr. Toh. Mr. Toh is speaking in his personal capacity."

"What I can say is that any applicable privileges and immunities of U.N. staff members, whether past or present, are regulated by international treaties," she added.

"The procedure for the consideration of requests for waivers of immunity, it's a well-established process within the U.N., so of course, if your hypothetical questions would turn to be true, then those would apply," she said.

When the Secretariat initially launched a probe into what it called "misconduct and mismanagement" in U.N. procurement in January 2006, it moved against eight staffers who were temporarily suspended -- "on special leave with pay" -- pending investigations. The U.N.'s audit documents, the Secretariat claimed, found "the likelihood of fraud" that could have amounted to about 300 million dollars, mostly in peacekeeping procurement.

One senior official privately boasted that he would make sure that any indicted staffer would be taken out of the U.N. building in handcuffs. But the threat never materialized.

The announcement of the suspension was turned into a media circus, with all eight staffers under the glare of undue publicity -- and heavily spotlighted in right-wing, neo-conservative U.S. newspapers and TV networks which used the probe to beat up on the United Nations as a corrupt and badly managed organization.

But one year later, six of the eight staffers were reinstated with no charges against them, and the seventh staffer was indicted and convicted, and is awaiting sentencing. The eighth staffer is Toh.

Last week, a Russian diplomat who chaired a key financial advisory committee was jailed on money laundering charges, in an unrelated case of corruption in U.N. procurement contracts.

One U.N. staffer who has been following the Toh case closely said: "If the secretary-general is truly interested in transparency and accountability, why has he not taken a decision on the report of the Panel on Discrimination and Other Grievances (that was set up by the Administration) that had been sitting on his desk for nearly three months?"

He said the PDOG recommended that Toh be reinstated, rendered and apology and paid a compensation. "The secretary-general has conveniently kept this on the back burner," he added.

Meanwhile, there have been rumours that the secretary-general has decided to demote Toh: from an assistant secretary-general to a director.

U.N. spokesperson Montas refused to confirm or deny this. Asked for a clarification, she told reporters Thursday: "This is an internal, confidential matter between the organization and a staff member."

However, she admitted the secretary-general has arrived at a decision to impose "disciplinary measures."

"The decision has been conveyed to the staff member," she added.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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