Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24, updated Feb 25 -- The receipt of $7000 a month in free rent by the director of the UN Development Program's anti-poverty Millennium Campaign has been the subject of heated debate in the Dutch parliament. UNDP's Administrator Kemal Dervis, asked about it by Inner City Press, admitted that the payments were improper. So has the Office of the Spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But now should Evelyn Herfkens, to whom the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid the housing subsidy in violation of UN rules, be required to pay the money back? Should there be any punishment at all?
After extensive lobbying on Ms. Herfkens behalf by UNDP's two top executives, and a senior advisor from the UN Secretariat, it is reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sees no reason to reclaim the money from Herfkens "as it is not clear if Herfkens knew she was not allowed to take the money and she never asked for it."
This is in stark contrast to a case earlier this decade in which a single mother in Brooklyn through a clerical error received hundreds of thousands of dollars into her Chase Bank account that had been intended for a UN Environment Program trust fund. Susan Madakor, who used the part to for example set up an education fund for her son, not only was required to make restitution of the money, under a legal theory of unjust enrichment -- she was also prosecuted and convicted of a crime. So why the kid's glove treatment for Ms. Herfkens?
In order words, why would the UN prosecute a low-income woman for the type of windfall that it allows, with impunity, for a politically-connected ex-diplomat who was already getting paid $225,000 a year by the UN for part-time work ostensibly for the poor?
Ms. Madakor, who found the money erroneously deposited in her account, said she thought she had won an international lottery. Nevertheless, then UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said that the UN would employ "all legal options available" because "this money does not belong to Ms Madakor." Eckhard's deputy Manoel de Almeida e Silva later told the press that "Susan Madakor, a Brooklyn resident who had received wire transfers mistakenly credited by Chase Manhattan Bank that were intended for the United Nations Environmental Program, was convicted of bank larceny and bank fraud. Last week she was sentenced to two years in prison. United States District Judge Shirley Kram ordered her to begin serving her sentence by May 16, and also ordered her to pay restitution to Chase."
So what legal options are being considered given Ms. Herfkens improper receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars in housing subsidy from a government while ostensibly working for the UN? None, apparently. Rather, senior UNDP and UN officials have put their credibility on the line to insist that Ms. Herfkens never knew that the housing subsidy was against the rules.
This is questionable: records show that Herfkens was intimately knowledgeable about UNDP's rules for such things as the authorization to fly business class rather than coach. She asked to be allowed to fly business class even after she shifted to part-time contractor status in order to appear eligible for a U.S. green card. Significantly, the prohibition on receiving housing subsidy or benefits from a government is included in employment contract she signed.
Inner City Press is also told that UNDP Associate Administrator Ad Melkert attended numerous social events in Herfkens' posh Dag Hammarskjold Towers apartment. Apparently it never occurred to him to wonder, or ask, how this apartment was being paid for.
[Update of Feb. 25: UNDP spokesman David Morrison writes to state that "Mr. Melkert never set foot in the apartment," and deny any "impropriety or negligence" by Melkert. Duly noted. Apparently, UNDP does not contest that Melkert (and Kemal Dervis) lobbied Dutch officials to reach a finding the Eveline Herfkens didn't know she was breaking UN rules, and UNDP sees no need (or no way) to explain the disparity of low-income Brooklynite Susan Madakor being prosecuted and jailed for inadvertently receiving funds, as well as being required to make restitution, while UNDP's Director of the Millennium Campaign faces no prosecution and, apparently at UNDP's lobbying, is not required to pay back a single cent. We will continue to follow this.]
Once exposed for receiving the subsidy, Herfkens told the press that she needed a nice apartment. Note to Herfkens, from / in the spirit of Susan Madakor: they are cheaper in Brooklyn, to say nothing of The Bronx.
While UNDP has loudly claimed that Melkert never received housing subsidy from the Dutch government while employed by UNDP, or even before that at the World Bank, testimony in the Dutch parliament raises questions about other improper payments to UN officials by the Dutch government. It has been acknowledged that Dutch government payments were also made, as employer, into Herfkens' ongoing Dutch pension, even while she was employed by UNDP. Such payments also violate UN rules and the Charter. As with housing subsidy, and particularly in light of the asserted defense that Ms. Herfkens never asked for the payments, there is no reason to believe that she was the only Dutch UN official improperly receiving governmental benefits.
Three weeks ago, Inner City Press approached former Dutch diplomat Peter van Walsum, who is employed by the UN as its envoy on Western Sahara. A staffer cut off access to van Walsum, who is known to avoid the press. Inner City Press asked, are you his spokesperson? No, he doesn't have one, was the response. Inner City Press asked if van Walsum received any benefit from the Dutch government, and was quickly (and in a whisper) told that he doesn't live in New York, making housing subsidy unlikely. His public financial disclosure form, for the record, lists no outside activities or payments. But what about pension or other benefits?
Inner City Press was directed to ask a specific person in the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, who was said to know whom to call on van Walsum's staff to get the answer. Inner City Press immediately made the request and was told that inquiry would be made. Three weeks later, nothing. There is also a Dutch Assistant Secretary General employed by the UN's anti-avian flu unit, and numerous Dutch D-1s and D-2s. Will senior UNDP and UN officials lobby for all of them? Will Eveline Herfkens ultimately face anything like Brooklynite Susan Madakor? Will Herfkens face justice in court? Watch this site.
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