Theft and Mismanagement Charged at U.N. Weather Agency

Published: February 9, 2005

The tempest inside the World Meteorological Organization began with a single check.

An accountant working late one night in July 2003 at the United Nations-affiliated weather agency in Geneva spotted a check that he had signed, but noticed that someone had endorsed it to an unknown third party, one L. Khalil. The accountant's curiosity was piqued, and he began nosing around.

"Within half an hour I had found about 25 checks worth about $400,000 that had not gone to where they were supposed to go," said the accountant, Luckson Ngwira.

That led to a formal audit and a continuing criminal investigation by Swiss authorities at the sleepy agency, focusing on allegations of embezzlement of training funds by Muhammad Hassan, a Sudanese employee who controlled that money. Investigators allege in documents and interviews that Mr. Hassan stole as much as $3 million over three or four years.

This might be a simple embezzlement case, except that in addition to the money, Mr. Hassan is missing as well. A woman claiming to be Mr. Hassan's wife filed a death certificate, which Sudanese officials have told investigators is fake.

The investigation and the ensuing tumult has rocked an agency where excitement usually only comes with extreme weather. "This is bigger than Ben Hur," said Kathleen Charles, who was the agency's chief administrator before resigning in late 2003. "It has kept growing and growing."

The agency, which aims to coordinate and improve weather reporting around the globe, is small by United Nations standards, with just 350 employees and an annual budget of roughly $75 million. But critics of the United Nations said the weather agency's woes, coming after disclosures of widespread abuse in the oilfor-food program in Iraq, reflect broader mismanagement at the organization. The House International Relations Committee is expected to explore this theme at a hearing on Wednesday.

Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for Secretary General Kofi Annan, said that while the specialized agency was in the "U.N. constellation," it operated independently of the Secretariat in New York. "They are responsible for cleaning up whatever might have gone wrong there," he said.

Representative Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House panel, said United Nations officials "want it both ways." He said they took credit for the accomplishments of agencies like the meteorological organization but deny "responsibility for accusations of malfeasance."

Those accusations are outlined in diplomatic cables to the State Department from the United States mission to the United Nations in Geneva, copies of which were provided to The New York Times by Congressional investigators. The cables and additional interviews show an agency rife with intrigue and politics.

Mr. Ngwira, 49, the Malawian accountant who uncovered the first unusual check, initially hesitated to report his suspicions.

"Hassan was very close to the man who was then our secretary general," he said, referring to Godwin Olu Patrick Obasi of Nigeria. Mr. Obasi had run the meteorological agency for more than 20 years, and Mr. Hassan had boasted of being close to him. "They were always together, so we knew that if you annoyed Muhammad Hassan, you were annoying the big man," Mr. Ngwira said.

Mr. Ngwira said Mr. Hassan had told him that he had helped re-elect Mr. Obasi as head of the agency by defraying travel expenses for representatives of national weather services when they went to Geneva, one of Europe's most expensive cities. Those representatives elect the agency's secretary general.

Soon after his arrival at the agency, Mr. Ngwira said, Mr. Hassan asked him to be host to "one of our brothers from Africa" who had arrived in Geneva. When Mr. Ngwira declined, saying he and his family were still unpacking, Mr. Hassan said he was making a mistake.

"He said, 'Look, if you do something like this for the secretary general, he will never forget you,' " Mr. Ngwira said Mr. Hassan had told him. " 'People here get promoted not because of their work, but because they're nice to the powerful people here. This is an opportunity for you. If you don't take it, don't be surprised if you don't get promoted.' "

Mr. Ngwira was not promoted, although agency officials said this week that he would be rewarded for pursuing the signs of fraud.

Ms. Charles, the former administrator, said she understood why some might have feared Mr. Obasi. "The secretary general's personal style was very reserved, and hierarchical," she said. "I liked and respected him, but many people were afraid of him."

As evidence of financial misdeeds bubbled to the surface in 2003, Mr. Obasi, who was preparing to retire, suspended Mr. Hassan without pay, said Carine VanMaele, an agency spokeswoman. Mr. Obasi could not be reached for comment, and agency officials said they had no address or phone number for him.

Eventually auditors found evidence that Mr. Hassan had skimmed at least $3 million, or more than one-fifth of the agency's training budget, Ms. VanMaele said in an e-mail message. The criminal investigation is continuing, according to Daniel Zappelli, the prosecutor overseeing the inquiry.

But the subject of the investigation is nowhere to be found. Mr. Hassan was dismissed in late 2003. A month later, agency officials said they received a letter indicating that he had suddenly died. A woman purporting to be his widow then presented the agency with a Sudanese death certificate supposedly authenticating his death, seeking to claim his pension, according to agency officials and a State Department cable.

"But she didn't get the money," said Joachim Muller, who last year became the agency's director of management resources. "We stopped that."

Not only have officials been informed that the death certificate is not authentic, but Swiss investigators have determined that the supposed widow may not even have been Mr. Hassan's wife.

Although investigators have not found Mr. Hassan, they have learned more about him. Swiss investigators discovered that he had "numerous businesses in Switzerland," including two restaurants in Geneva and an export-import company, according to a State Department cable. He had also used his position at the agency to obtain at least three "laissez-passers," or service passports, allowing free passage between countries. Before he left Switzerland in the fall of 2003, he emptied his bank accounts.

According to State Department cables, investigators are examining whether some officials in meteorological offices around the world, who received training fund checks, may have colluded with Mr. Hassan. In addition, one cable said that as many as 10 to 15 officials at the agency could be found to be negligent in the case.

In January 2004, Michel Jarraud of France, who had been Mr. Obasi's deputy, became secretary general and quickly realized the trouble he had on his hands, agency officials said.

The weather agency had no ethics code, and when Mr. Jarraud proposed adopting the United Nations code, the agency's external auditors warned that "given the U.N. code's known weaknesses, W.M.O. ought to set its standards higher," a State Department cable said.

The organization, the cable reports Mr. Jarraud as saying, "suffered from decades of stagnation and mismanagement which required overhauling W.M.O.'s corporate culture." The agency's internal auditor "had no staff support and is clearly overtaxed."

Mr. Muller, who has helped supervise the internal inquiry, said Mr. Jarraud had enacted more than 40 changes in the agency's operations, including stricter financial controls and an increased auditing staff.
As the cloud over the agency begins to lift, the agency's senior legal adviser has assessed the damage. According to one State Department cable, the legal adviser, Iwona Rummel-Bulska, recently told American diplomats in Geneva that "while bad," the weather agency's internal procedures were "not the worst seen in the U.N. family of organizations."