Thursday, August 28, 2008

UN Whistleblower in Tokyo Raises Questions of Fraud, Cover-Up and Retaliation from Below

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, August 26 -- Objections against UN management raised by a high-profile Japanese journalist who headed the UN Information Center in Tokyo until earlier this year reveal a culture of retaliation and denial, alongside questions about the purpose and performance of these Information Centers and the UN's relations with major donor nations like Japan.

Charmine Koda was named the director of UNIC-Tokyo in April 2006. Later that year, she discovered systemic financial irregularities at the Center, including the use of falsified invoices to pay for services not yet rendered. She blew the whistle on these irregularities, first to the Department of Public Information which oversees the Information Centers, then when nothing was done, to the Office of Internal Oversight Services. In the resulting audit, Ms. Koda's own management style came under review, and she was given a series of short-term contract renewals and stripped of various of her powers at the Center.

Ms. Koda filed a harassment complaint against DPI's then number-two official in March 2008, heretofore not reported in the English language press. When Ms. Koda moved to schedule a press conference in Tokyo, DPI's top official Kiyotaka Akasaka in turn summoned some of the UN press corps to his office for a counter-briefing. Only representatives of the Japanese press were invited, an incongruity Inner City Press noted soon thereafter. (Click here for that May 21, 2008 article.)

After questions from Inner City Press, last week finally some answers were provided. Two individuals who requested to be identified only as "UN officials knowledgeable about the case" spoke with Inner City Press for an hour. They emphasized their argument that Ms. Koda cannot be considered a whistleblower, since "it was her job to report what she saw." They stressed that complaints were filed about Ms. Koda by six of the seven staffers of UNIC-Tokyo "and even the interns." They said that the money the UN had spent arranging for management training for Ms. Koda could have been spent on substantive programs in other UNICs.

They could not directly explain, however, why if in their view Ms. Koda was such a bad manager, she had been given the management job in the first place. They said that the selection of UNIC directors is vetted by the host governments, particularly in cases like the Tokyo Center where the host government provides most of the funding for the Center's work. So does a government's view come into play even earlier in the selection process? The two UN official acknowledged that it does.

How this plays out in the UN Information Centers in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar will be the subject for future Inner City Press articles. As related to Ms. Koda, the two officials repeated sought to portray the UN as the victim, and Ms. Koda as "not a whistleblower." Inner City Press disagrees, for the reasons summarized below.

When Ms. Koda finally left the UNIC in June 2008, she wrote a lengthy expose of her time at the UN. This appeared in the Japanese magazine Bungeishunju and has yet to appear in English. Inner City Press has reviewed a 23-page translation of the article. DPI's attempts to limit it responses to the Japanese-language press, and to claim that Ms. Koda is not and cannot be a whistleblower, are now more understandable, as Ms. Koda's critique is comprehensive -- and she names names.

To set the stage, Ms. Koda describes UNIC-Tokyo as

"a small office made up of the Director and 7 staff members, and the Directors have been senior level staff hired by the UN Headquarters and were changed approximately every 2 or 3 years ever since it was founded. In the beginning, foreign nationals were appointed, but in recent years, the position was assumed by Japanese. The first was Mr. Hatsuhisa Takashima (2000 ~ 2002, from NHK), next was Mr. Akio Nomura (2003 ~ 2005, from Asahi Shimbun), and the third Japanese Director was myself."

To this we can add that the Government of Japan's role in the selection of directors, and the use of Japanese taxpayers' funds for the work of the Center, making even more significant the reports of financial irregularities. As stated by Ms. Koda

"The contents of these financial irregularities were later summarized briefly in the report (dated March 11, 2008) of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) audit. In December 2005, during the time of the former Director, the Center had 3 companies produce fictitious invoices and remitted a total of 3,130,000 yen... According to the explanation of the staff, they were 'pre-payments' that were intended to be consumed in the following fiscal year (the end of the fiscal budget year is December), and it is said that this practice had been prevalent since 2000. The audit report states that this is against UN financial rules and is requesting that 'appropriate measures' be taken against the concerned staff. The signatures of the former Director and the administrative assistant remain clearly on the fictitious vouchers. And fictitious reporting was being done to the UN Headquarters... I immediately reported all to Director [Paula] Refolo at the Department of Public Information."

But the UN's focus soon turned on Ms. Koda herself. As another UN system whistleblower has phrased it to Inner City Press, "the UN always shoots the messenger." The twist in this case is that, at least on its face, the retaliation was from below. Long-time UNIC staff members who were there are the time of the financial irregularities sent complaints to the UN in New York. Specifically, according to Ms. Koda, six staff members

"sent a letter to Director Refolo accusing me of 'power harassment' and 'misbehavior as International Civil Servant.' (One staff member opposed this kind of action and did not sign the letter.) Letters in support of the accusations addressed to Under-Secretary-General [Shashi] Tharoor by the two former Directors, Mr. Takashima and Mr. Nomura, and a letter by 2 interns addressed to the Secretary-General were also attached... the Department of Public Information took them up at face value, incorporated their arguments one-sidedly, wrote a report pursuing my responsibility, and took the measure to not allow me to refute."

An official the Japanese Foreign Ministry consulted by Inner City Press for this story stated that "we are keen" on getting to the bottom of the financial improprieties at UNIC-Tokyo "since the money is that of the Japanese taxpayers," and that Ms. Koda as well as the UNIC-Tokyo staff should be treated fairly during these reviews. A senior Japanese official expressed support for Ms. Koda. But not enough, apparently, to protect her from retaliation, at least for now. Following this report, Ms. Koda says,

"Refolo sent me an email telling me, 'It has been decided that staff A will do the staff members' PAS evaluation this year.' She was going to rob me of what was close to the only authority I had as the Director and hand it over to A. This will be equivalent to DPI’s recognition of staff A as the virtual Director. When I wrote back to that effect, Ms Refolo responded, 'It is a one- time measure which is necessary... and is being taken mainly as a way to protect you, given that even your most objective evaluation could be perceived by staff as retaliation.'"

The irony appears lost on DPI -- they retaliated by stripping Ms. Koda, who had complained of financial impropriety, of her responsibilities, ostensibly so that she would not be charged with retaliation. Ms. Koda continues that in early 2008

"in Bangkok, a meeting among Directors of UNICs in Asian countries was held and USG Akasaka, Director Refolo and I were there on site. That morning, when I met USG Akasaka at the hotel restaurant and offered him to join me, he asked, 'Have you seen the OIOS draft report?' When I answered, 'Not yet,' he told me to get a copy from Director Refolo. That evening, as she was leaving to go out for dinner, I somehow managed to stop her and receive a copy. I felt my blood freeze. It wrote the problem of staff management as top priority, and by quoting the contents of the staff’s allegations and the Panel report, it recommended my reassignment. Procurement issues such as financial irregularities were placed in the back inconspicuously."

Inner City Press has asked OIOS' Inga Britt Ahlenius about among other things OIOS' role in the matter, including the allegation by some of the use of OIOS as a part of retaliation, but Ms. Ahlenius has not responded. Hours later a message arrived, that Ms. Ahlenius is on "annual leave" extending from July 28 through September 15. But the questions asked cannot wait that long. Ms. Koda, for the record, says she keeps an open mind. She concludes

"Inside the United Nations, the reputation of the Department of Public Information of its heavy-handed attitude is being talked about. Also from subordinate organizations of other area discontent towards the ways of Director Refolo is being heard. However, as long as the issue is discussed and dealt with only inside the closed environment of the organization called the UN, a fundamental solution to this kind of problem can hardly be expected. I have decided to resign from my post and expose the problem to public review. I would like to express my gratitude to all the people for their trust and support in my work at the UN, and at the same time, I wish to apologize from my heart for not being able to fulfill it. I am still a believer in the principles and the meaningfulness of the activities of the United Nations. To contribute my humble part to the reform of that United Nations, I am determined to fight all the way."

In light of the repeated argument of the two "UN officials" provided by DPI that Ms. Koda cannot be considered a whistleblower since it was her duty to report improprieties, Inner City Press asked the Washington-based Government Accountability Project (GAP) for comment. In response, Tom Devine, GAP's legal director, said that "there's not even a syllable in the UN policy that provides an opening for that loophole. It's entirely a bureaucratic creation to avoid the approved U.N. rules on whistleblower rights."

Inner City Press wants to cover more of the UN DPI's side. The initial block was DPI's decision to limit its story-telling to the Japanese media. Now, an outgoing difficulty is the unwillingness of DPI to tell any part of its story on the record and for attribution. As Ms. Koda asks, how then are they the Department of PUBLIC Information?" Perhaps DPI is in a difficult position. But how would one know? To be continued.

1 comment:

Leon Kukkuk said...

Is Ms Koda perhaps being denounced as a bad manager by staff that may have concerns other than her management style?
May this staff be more concerned with keeping their gravy train going?
May they be concerned with protecting themselves from retaliation?

"Ms. Koda cannot be considered a whistleblower since it was her duty to report improprieties"

Somebody at the UN had obviously read "Catch 22" recently. Congratulations.