Portrait of Benon Sevan
On Monday 8 August, Sevan was accused by a U.N.-established panel of investigators of receiving nearly $150,000 for steering oil contracts to relatives of former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He has vigorously denied the charges.
Sevan, 67, a Cypriot of Armenian descent, was chosen to direct the oil-for-food program after a distinguished 40-year career with the world body in which he was involved in some of the most intractable, and often dangerous, world crises.
A big man with white hair and dark eyebrows, Sevan was admired by colleagues for an ability to solve problems fast, his blunt retorts and a store of anecdotes for all occasions, told in rapid-fire heavily-accented English.
He once jokingly said his outspokenness made him the most "politically incorrect person in the United Nations."
The report on Monday from the Independent Inquiry Committee, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, alleged that Sevan received received wads of $100 bills in illicit payments after his personal finances were hurt when he was swindled in a stock fraud.
From 1998 to 2001, he sought oil allocations from Iraq for the African Middle East Petroleum firm, owned by Egyptian Fakhry Abdelnour, a cousin of Boutros-Ghali, the report said.
This firm transferred $580,000 to the account of Fred Nadler, the brother of Boutros-Ghali's wife Leia, the report said. Of this amount, Nadler deposited in cash $147,184 to the New York bank accounts of Sevan, the report said.
Sevan drew down his New York bank accounts in 1996 and 1997 to buy $180,000 in stocks at a time the market was booming, the report said, adding that borrowed on an equity line of credit and took a cash advance on his credit card.
Rather than take any money out, he reinvested it. But by the end of 1998, his stock portfolio had plummeted by more than half, due in part to his becoming ensnared in a securities fraud scam carried out by four executives of the D.H. Blair brokerage firm. The executives later pleaded guilty to multiple counts of securities fraud and collusion to fix stock prices.
FINANCES STRETCHED THIN
From mid-1997 through November 1998, Sevan's income was "frequently stretched thin from the monthly burden of funding two residences, debt obligations, credit card charges and related living expenses," said the report by the panel, led by Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
In short, Mr. Sevan's personal financial condition was precarious at the time he became executive director of the Office of the Iraq Program in October 1997. It remained so when he traveled to Iraq to ask Oil Minister (Amer) Rashid for an oil allocation in June 1998, the Volcker report said.
Raised by an aunt in Cyprus, Sevan, who is married and has one daughter, studied ancient Greek philosophy at New York's Columbia University before joining the United Nations in 1965.
In his long U.N. career he served in Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia and Lebanon and in myriad jobs at U.N. headquarters in New York, including security coordinator and Security Council administrator.
In Iraq, he narrowly survived the bombing of U.N. headquarters in August 2003, leaving the office of Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, the mission chief, to smoke a cigar minutes before the blast, which killed 22 people.
It was left to Sevan to recite Vieira de Mello's dying words -- "Don't pull the mission out!" -- as his body was carried aboard a Brazilian presidential plane at Baghdad airport for his last journey home.
Sevan was named in October 1997 to run the oil-for-food program under which Iraq, squeezed by international sanctions imposed for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, was allowed to sell oil to buy goods for its people.
He was considered tough and unsentimental and knew the political game, said one envoy. Key Security Council members, like the United States, went along with the appointment.