Former UN official presses $1 million demand

AP News
Posted: Oct 12, 2011 1:01 AM
Former UN official presses $1 million demand

James Wasserstrom says he was fired from his U.N. job in Kosovo, detained briefly at the border, had his apartment in Pristina searched and was humiliated by "wanted posters" posted at the U.N. mission after he reported suspicions of corruption.

On Wednesday, Wasserstrom will ask for $1 million in damages in a high-profile test case of the U.N.'s new court system for employee issues. It replaces the secret, delay-plagued system that legal experts in 2006 called "dysfunctional" and critics said heavily favored U.N. management.

Wednesday's hearing is meant to determine whether senior U.N. officials retaliated against Wasserstrom for bringing up corruption concerns about his colleagues.

Under a whistleblower protection policy signed by then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005, all U.N. employees are to be offered protection from retaliation.

But Wasserstrom, a U.S. citizen, says his job with the U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo was eliminated in 2007 after he reported on colleagues he suspected were taking kickbacks from local officials in the energy sector.

He says he was briefly arrested by U.N. police and his office was searched and taped off for months while the mission investigated him for what it called conflict of interest, after Wasserstrom signed a consulting contract to start after his U.N. job ended.

While the U.N. Ethics Office said the treatment of Wasserstrom "seemed to be excessive," it said it found no evidence that the actions against him were retaliatory.

Now an anti-corruption officer at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, Wasserstrom flew from Kabul this week to New York to attend the U.N. hearing to challenge the ethics office's finding. The U.N. has argued in legal documents that the court has no jurisdiction over the case because the ethics office is independent and does not answer to the Secretary-General.

Wasserstrom's attorney, Mary Dorman, said it took several years to obtain many of the documents she needed. "The S.G. fought it all the way," she added, referring to current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Leaving the Left
John Stossel

Wasserstrom's case is the most high-profile test of the new U.N. Dispute Tribunal, established two years ago with courtrooms in New York, Geneva and Nairobi. Unlike the old system, its hearings are open and its decisions are binding on U.N. senior officials, including the Secretary-General.

Wasserstrom worked for the U.N. for 25 years. While the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services was investigating his suspicions about his colleagues, the U.N. mission in Kosovo announced what it called a long-planned elimination of his position, Dorman said.

"They maintained that they were always going to abolish his position, that it wasn't retaliation _ just an overreaction," Dorman said.

Wasserstrom seeks more than $1 million for lost wages, compensation for defamation and mental distress.

"What happened destroyed his U.N. career," Dorman said.