UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Kofi Annan faced new questions about whether he helped steer the award of an Iraqi oil-for-food contract to his son's employer after the disclosure Tuesday of a memo described by one investigator as "a smoking gun."
A newly discovered e-mail written by an executive with the company that employed Annan's son, Kojo, stated that the secretary-general and his aides had assured him of their "support" just weeks before the firm won the bid. Annan repeated Tuesday his contention that he did not even know the company was competing for the contract.
The independent committee investigating the U.N. oil-for-food program said Tuesday that it was "urgently reviewing" the memo, part of a 1998 internal e-mail from Michael Wilson, a vice president of Cotecna Inspection Services, to his bosses describing a meeting with Annan in Paris in November 1998.
Wilson wrote that Annan "and his entourage" had told him a few weeks before the contract was awarded that "we could count on their support." In another memo written a few days after the Cotecna team met with U.N. officials in New York in early December, Wilson wrote, "We can expect a positive outcome to our efforts." The memo is not clear about whether Annan had personally given assurances.
A week later, on Dec. 11, the Geneva-based inspection company won a $10-million-a-year contract to inspect Iraqi imports.
Cotecna employed Kojo Annan as a staffer, and then as a consultant until December 1998, and continued payments to him until 2004. The memo, provided to congressional investigators by Cotecna on Monday, seems to contradict Kofi Annan's insistence that he was unaware that his son's employer was bidding for the contract. The memo was first reported Tuesday by the New York Times.
Through his spokesman, Annan on Tuesday repeated denials that he knew that Cotecna was a bidder and said he had no recollection of meeting with Wilson in Paris. Annan's office has turned over records of the trip to the Independent Inquiry Committee, a panel led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker that is looking into abuses of the $64-billion relief program for Iraq.
Cotecna's spokesman, Mark Herbert, refused to comment on whether the meeting took place, but said that the company had recently discovered the memo along with 11 other documents in a forensic audit, and passed them on to investigators.
"The company's position is clear," Herbert said. "Despite the documents, they [Cotecna officials] acted fairly, ethically and appropriately and won the contract based on the merit and price of their bid."
Annan might have hoped to emerge unscathed from the only investigation in a series of oil-for-food inquiries that might have linked him personally to the scandal.
The secretary-general has not been accused of wrongdoing, though several Republican congressmen have renewed calls for him to resign and take responsibility for the program's mismanagement.
Last year, Annan invited independent investigators to examine charges of systemic corruption and to address concerns that he might have tipped a contract to Cotecna. In March, the Volcker panel concluded that there was "insufficient evidence" to show that Annan had improper involvement in the contract's award, and Annan declared himself "exonerated." But after Cotecna officials turned over documents to the Volcker panel Tuesday and three congressional committees examining the oil-for-food program the day before, one investigator who asked to remain unidentified called the memo "Kofi's smoking gun."
At the United Nations, officials say the memo is unsubstantiated and circumstantial. Annan's extensive travel logs have no record of a meeting with Wilson, though they showed that Annan did attend a meeting of French-speaking leaders in Paris in late November 1998, the period that the memo indicated Wilson met with him.
Wilson is a longtime family friend of the Annans. He is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, grew up with Kojo and called Kofi "Uncle." Annan asked Wilson for help getting Kojo a job at Cotecna, according to a report by the Volcker committee, and Wilson and Kojo worked together.
In an interview with the Volcker panel in January, Wilson said that he and Kojo would sometimes meet the secretary-general in Paris and London.
Kojo appears to have been with Wilson in Paris. Wilson's memo alludes to another person at the meeting with Annan, and refers to courtesy calls paid to several African presidents by "KA," which Cotecna's Herbert said referred to Kojo Annan.
Kojo has occasionally met with his father on the sidelines of meetings without being on the official schedule, raising the possibility that the younger Annan and Wilson had a private exchange with the secretary-general that was not formally noted.
"If the secretary-general and his son were there together, you could assume that they spoke together," said Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard. But he said he did not know if Kojo was in Paris at the time.