New U.S. Law Links Whistleblowers Defense to U.N. Funds

9:15 AM, Feb 7, 2014   |    comments
The United Nations General Assembly in New York City (image credit Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty)
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By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY

Starting this year, the State Department must require the United Nations to protect whistleblowers who report corruption or do without 15% of U.S. contributions until it does, according to the Government Accountability Project, a transparency advocate.

The requirement was prompted in part by retaliation by high-level U.N. officials against a 28-year U.N. employee who reported a $500 million kickback scheme for the construction of a power plant and coal mine in Kosovo. It was signed into law Jan. 17 by President Obama as part of the 2014 appropriations bill.

"They wanted to destroy me personally and professionally," said the former employee, James Wasserstrom, now a senior anti-corruption official for U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"All major donors (to the U.N.) should demand that the U.N. stop playing around with the words 'anti-corruption' and go after high level officials involved in this."

Bea Edwards, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, said the new measure is needed because corruption problems at the U.N. are "quite widespread." And the USA, which provides 22% of the U.N.'s total budget and is the largest single donor, is in a unique position to improve U.N. operations, she said.

While the State Department was authorized to withhold the funds since 2012, it hasn't because it sought to avoid controversy, according to the Government Accountability Project.

The State Department could not find someone to respond Thursday night.

Edwards' organization worked with the U.N. to adopt a whistleblower policy, but the office has failed to take an effective stand to defend whistleblowers who report retaliation, Edwards said. Of 300 whistleblower who reported retaliation to the U.N. ethics office between 2006 and 2011, the U.N. only only validated three cases, including Wasserstrom's, Edwards said.

Wasserstrom says corruption and retaliation against whistleblowers at the U.N. "is systemic and (involves) collusion at the highest levels to protect the U.N.'s reputation."

His case started in Kosovo, where he worked from 2002 to 2008, overseeing public utilities and handling corruption reports.

"My job was not to investigate but to turn it over to the appropriate authorities," Wasserstrom said.

When he received a report that a $5 billion project included a $500 million in kickbacks to a list of officials including his own boss and a Kosovar minister, he notified the U.N.'s inspector general at the time, Inga-Britt Ahlenius.

Next, U.N. police arrested him, and searched his home and car. U.N. officials posted wanted posters outside his office, and he was fired. The U.N. later called his treatment excessive but ruled it was not retaliation.

The U.N.'s Dispute Tribunal, its internal court, ruled otherwise and awarded Wasserstrom $50,000 for his troubles. But none of the people who engaged in the retaliatory behavior suffered any consequences, says Dylan Blaylock, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Project.

Edwards said the new requirement will help protect whistleblowers like Wasserstrom, who come forward with suspicions they may not be able to prove, and are confronted with an institution that "desperately is trying to protect its senior management's reputation."

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