Saturday, July 7, 2007

Ex-Worker Seeks Whistleblower Protection

Ex-Worker Seeks Whistleblower Protection

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 7, 2007; 3:22 AM

UNITED NATIONS -- The former operations officer for the U.N. anti-poverty agency in North Korea is seeking whistleblower protection from the United Nations, saying he lost his job for raising serious allegations about its financial transactions in the reclusive communist nation.

The U.N. Development Fund on Friday, however, disputed Artjon Shkurtaj's allegations that he was subject to retaliation.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Shkurtaj said he went to the former U.N. management chief and the U.S. government after his bosses at the U.N. Development Fund failed to act on his allegations.

When he asked what to do with counterfeit U.S. dollars he found in the office safe on his first day in Pyongyang in November 2004, Shkurtaj said he never got a response. And he said when he complained that paying all North Korean salaries and program expenses in hard currency instead of local currency was against U.N. rules, he said he was told "not to rock the boat."

UNDP spokesman David Morrison said Friday that the agency "has looked into this claim and based on available information found it to be without basis."

"UNDP has invited the individual to submit all relevant information to the UNDP office charged with undertaking internal inquiries, but he has so far declined to do so," Morrison told a news conference.

Two U.S. lawmakers _ Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, have sent letters to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging him to intervene and ensure that Shkurtaj is not punished for raising concerns about U.N. operations in North Korea.

U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said the U.N. Ethics Office was considering a request by the former UNDP employee seeking whistleblower protection.

The whistleblower issue comes on the heels of U.S. allegations that UNDP had funneled millions of dollars in hard currency to North Korea with little assurance that Kim Jong Il used the money to help his people instead of diverting it to "illicit purposes," including developing nuclear weapons.

Shkurtaj, who is Albanian, said after he went to the U.S. government in July 2006, U.S. officials asked UNDP two questions: Was there counterfeit money in the safe in Pyongyang and was UNDP operating in hard currency?

In late March, UNDP announced that U.N. and U.S. authorities were investigating how $3,500 in suspected counterfeit $100 bills ended up sitting in a safe in the UNDP office in North Korea for 12 years.

An initial U.N. audit ordered by the secretary-general in response to the U.S. allegations reported in June that U.N. agencies paid North Korean staff and suppliers in hard currency _ euros _ without approval and hired only government-approved staff in violation of U.N. procedures.

After the U.S. raised new allegations, Ban said he would ask U.N. budget officials to approve a further probe by the auditors, who were unable to visit Pyongyang.

Morrison said the former UNDP worker _ whom he did not name _ was interviewed by the external auditors and met with UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis.

"A lot of what he says, frankly, we're not going to be able to settle on until auditors or independent authorities have access to the documentation which remains in Pyongyang," Morrison said.

He said if the audit doesn't continue, UNDP will bring the records out of Pyongyang "to settle these questions once and for all."

Shkurtaj said the UNDP records from Pyongyang should be brought back and opened to anyone to examine to see where every penny was spent _ and he said they should have been returned months ago.

Morrison said the former UNDP employee was not "a 13-year veteran" as Ros-Lehtinen claimed, but worked on short-term contracts for UNDP dating back to the 1990s, including in North Korea in 2005-2006. He said the whistleblower's latest three-month consultancy expired in March 2007.

Shkurtaj countered that he was ordered to return to New York on Sept. 26, 2006, in the middle of his contract, because "I rocked the boat too much and it was better for my health and future career."

But after continuing to pursue answers to the questions he raised in Pyongyang, he said, UNDP officials told him in March that there were no further jobs for him.

"My case is very important," Shkurtaj said. "If my case fails, everybody else in the U.N. will get the message, don't talk to the U.S. or any other member state if you want to keep your job."

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