UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday that he was "surprised and disappointed" by revelations that his son received payments until this year from a Swiss firm that won a lucrative contract under the U.N.'s scandal-ridden Iraqi "oil-for-food" program.
Annan confirmed news reports that his son, Kojo, 29, received $2,500 a month for more than five years from Cotecna Inspection SA, which monitored goods imported to Iraq under the humanitarian program from February 1999 until November 2003.
Cotecna and Annan previously claimed that Kojo Annan stopped working for the company in 1998. The company later said it had paid him the monthly stipend through 1999 to keep him from working for competitors and that he never worked on a project related to Iraq.
There is no evidence the younger Annan's connection with Cotecna influenced its receipt of the Iraq contract. But Kofi Annan acknowledged that Cotecna's payments to his son while the company was bidding on a U.N. contract and throughout its work in Iraq created an appearance of impropriety.
"I understand the perception problem for the U.N., or the perception of conflict of interests and wrongdoing," the secretary-general told reporters, adding that he had spoken to his son about the matter, but could not answer for him.
"He is an independent businessman. He is a grown man, and I don't get involved with his activities and he doesn't get involved in mine," Annan said.
A U.N.-appointed commission of inquiry is looking into the payments to Kojo Annan.
The Iraq program, begun in 1996, allowed Baghdad to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy food and other humanitarian goods. The intent was to soften the effects of sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. A U.N. committee vetted the contracts, arranged payment and hired inspectors, including Cotecna, to ensure Iraq did not import material that could be used for arms.
But mismanagement, corruption and manipulation of the program by Saddam Hussein allowed his regime to amass at least $21 billion outside the U.N.'s control, according to a recent estimate by the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, a weapons-hunting team.
The program is now the subject of at least four congressional investigations, three U.S. federal investigations and the U.N.-appointed commission of inquiry, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
The secretary-general has refused requests from congressional committees for access to the U.N.'s 55 internal audits and interviews with U.N. staff members, saying that it would interfere with the Volcker inquiry. His resistance sparked an angry letter from Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and has fueled rising anti-U.N. sentiment in Washington.
Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who chairs the House International Relations Committee, introduced a bill Nov. 17 demanding increased accountability by the U.N. He said he had obtained U.N. audits that "identified mismanagement and uneconomical arrangements" by Cotecna.
The news about Annan's son, first reported Friday in the New York Sun, has sparked calls by conservative pundits and a California-based Internet campaign for Annan to resign.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John C. Danforth, said he met with Annan on Monday to deliver the message that the oil-for-food issues were "very serious" and reflected on the integrity of the organization.
He urged Annan to provide full information to the congressional committees as soon as possible. "The most important thing that can happen in an investigation is to have all of the facts out there. Let the chips fall where they may," he said.