Politics & Policy

Guilty!

Some Oil-for-Food justice served.

Park’s conviction comes at a time when the scandal-ridden U.N. is demanding $1.8 billion for the renovation of the same Turtle Bay headquarters where the grand U.N. conclave has been failing utterly to cope with such urgent matters as the nuclear crisis in Iran, the missile crisis in North Korea and the long-running genocide in Sudan. Against this backdrop, Park’s trial can be viewed as the best argument in ages for letting the U.N. even stay in the country. The U.N. itself operates immune to any system of justice, with a resulting lack of accountability that explains much of its corruption, both financial and political. But at least the U.N.’s current location puts within reach of the law some of the private players who feed illicitly off the U.N. stew of money, secrecy, diplomatic immunity, and privilege.

A few other countries deserve respect for delving into their own roles in the $18 billion or more in exploitation, scamming, skimming, and oil smuggling that flourished under the U.N.’s relief program for Iraq. Australia, India, and even France have launched inquiries. But in scores of U.N. member states where Oil-for-Food left a wide and greasy trail — in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, and Vietnam, to name just a few — the idea of any serious investigation is apparently seen as a complete joke. In places such as Canada, home to tantalizing leads, the authorities appear to be snoozing at the switch. On Cyprus, where former Oil-for-Food director Benon Sevan now resides beyond reach of U.S. extradition, there has been no visible follow-up by Cypriot authorities to allegations by the U.N.’s own $35 million probe that Sevan took $147,000 in Oil-for-Food payoffs. (Sevan says he is innocent.)

So, as with billions in U.N. funding, the burden falls on the U.S. — where prosecutors in lower Manhattan have been slogging for the past two years through the sludge of the uptown U.N. According to testimony heard in Park’s trial over the past three weeks, the U.N.’s presence from 1992-2002 turned Manhattan into one of the hubs of an influence-peddling scheme that ran from Baghdad to the U.N. executive floor. Along the way agents of Saddam served as couriers of cash, messages and clout via such places as New York coffeeshops, restaurants, hotels, and the upmarket Sutton Place official residence of the U.N. secretary-general.

These were among the haunts of the 71-year-old Park, who was not officially employed by the U.N. (at least not that we have heard) — but who made a specialty of working its fancier venues. Park is a jet-setting businessman who has kept offices in Seoul, London, and Washington, among other places. He previously made a splash on the U.S. scene as a central figure in the 1970s congressional bribery scandal known as Koreagate. In that episode, he testified in exchange for immunity.

By the 1990s, Park was cultivating high-level contacts at the U.N. He paid frequent visits in the early 1990s to former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; then got into business arrangements — including a million-dollar oil company deal — with longtime U.N. eminence Maurice Strong, who worked in 1996 for Boutros-Ghali, and then served from 1997-2005 as one of Secretary-General Annan’s most senior advisers. Strong, during the first few years of the current nuclear standoff with North Korea, from 2003-2005, was Annan’s personal envoy to the Korean peninsula.

As Park’s trial has played out over the past three weeks, the details heard by the jury have been both complex and appalling. The testimony included an explanation by a State Department witness of the machinery of Oil-for-Food itself, details of Jordanian bank transactions, and accounts by a cooperating government witness, Samir Vincent, of stacks of cash totaling $1 million passed to Park, promises of much more to come, and of Vincent’s many trips to U.N.-sanctioned Baghdad — including a 1993 sit-down with Saddam (see photos posted on my trial blog).

Enough has emerged at this trial to invite plenty of comment in coming days. But right now, this much is clear. A jury of twelve ordinary Americans, none of them high-flying diplomats, none of them nurtured in the bubble world of the U.N., sat patiently through the testimony, and looked at the evidence. Unlike some of the most vocal defenders of the U.N., they held no board seats on U.N.-related foundations, they had no history of jetting around the world to U.N.-related conferences at five star hotels and Swiss resorts. And, in weighing the evidence, they had no information about Koreagate, which was not mentioned at the trial lest it prejudice the case.

The jury saw the exhibits and heard the questioning of witnesses in open court — unlike the interviews carried out solely in private by Paul Volcker’s secretive probe, commissioned by the U.N. Then the jurors sat down and used their common sense. We now have a verdict that begins to cut through the massive haze that has surrounded the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, in which, at the U.N. itself, not a single official has even been fired, let alone required to face a prosecutor in open court.

The next trial related to Oil-for-Food is scheduled for November, before the same federal judge, Denny Chin, and involving other alleged members of the conspiracy in which Park took part. Park’s sentencing is scheduled for October 26. According to his lawyer, he is “very disappointed” with the verdict.

A spokesman for the current government of Iraq takes a different view. Following the verdict on Park, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York issued a press release quoting Ambassador Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, the deputy permanent representative to the U.N. from the Republic of Iraq:

“Individuals like Tongsun Park, who actively represented the interests of the former regime in international matters and were willing to take money for those efforts from that regime, strengthened that regime and led to the continued repression of the people of Iraq. The Republic of Iraq is grateful for the hard work and dedication of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the FBI for pursuing this case and continuing to investigate criminal wrongdoing related to the Oil-for-Food Program.”

– Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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