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Sevan asks for appeal extension

From Liz Neisloss

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
United Nations
Benon V. Sevan

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The longtime head of the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq has asked the United Nations for more time to appeal his suspension over allegations of unethical conduct.

Benon Sevan submitted a letter to the U.N. Office of Human Resources responding to allegations of conflict of interest and unethical behavior in his management of the humanitarian program.

The letter's contents were not disclosed, but U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said it was "very common" for employees to ask for such an extension, "usually because they want access to documents they need or to study documents they need."

Dujarric added, "The extension is usually granted."

The U.N. appeals process can take months.

Sevan and another senior U.N. official, Joseph Stephanides, were informed of their suspensions two weeks ago after an interim report by a U.N.-appointed investigative committee accused them of misconduct.

The committee, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, found Sevan improperly solicited oil deals with Baghdad on behalf of a friend's oil company, African Middle East Petroleum.

The company profited $1.5 million by reselling seven million barrels of the Iraqi crude between 1998 and 2001, and Sevan subsequently reported dubious cash payments worth $160,000 on his U.N. financial disclosure forms, the committee found.

Sevan's attorney has said the administrator made no money on the program and has been made a scapegoat for its flaws.

Stephanides, who previously denied any wrongdoing, has responded to the charges, but no details of that response have been disclosed.

The Volcker report accused him of tainting the bidding process at the program's launch in 1996, when the world body awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to inspect humanitarian goods shipped to Iraq.

Stephanides contacted the contract recipient, Lloyd's Register, a British company, to lower its bid, the report stated.

Dujarric said Stephanides' response would be reviewed "according to normal procedures before any action is taken."

Sevan ran the Oil-for-Food program until its demise in 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

The program generated $64 billion in revenue, mostly earmarked for the purchase of food, medicine, and supplies to aid Iraqis living under international economic sanctions imposed following Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

U.S. investigators have estimated the Saddam pocketed approximately $2 billion to $4.5 billion through illegal surcharges on oil sales and kickbacks on goods purchased.

The regime also made an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion by sanctions-avoiding sales of oil, or smuggling, to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Syria.

Sevan is a subject of the ongoing Justice Department investigation being led by the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York.

Actions by the U.N. human resources department have no link to potential criminal prosecution.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he would lift diplomatic immunity for any U.N. official if prosecutors were to present evidence of criminal activity, though none have done so, according to U.N. officials.

Sevan, 67, a native of Cyprus and a 40-year U.N. employee, is technically retired from the United Nations but has been retained on a dollar-a-year basis so that he will be available to investigators.

That symbolic salary allows him to maintain a visa to stay in the United States.

But if he were to be fired outright, Sevan could lose his visa, putting him potentially out of reach of investigators.

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