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Ex-U.N. official admits taking bribes

Separate oil-for-food probe also accuses former contracts officer

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN

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United Nations
Iraq
Paul Volcker
Benon V. Sevan

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- A former U.N. official pleaded guilty to corruption charges Monday in the first case involving a U.N. staff member stemming from investigations into the defunct Iraq oil-for-food program.

Alexander Yakovlev, a former senior contracts officer, admitted he received several hundred thousand dollars in bribes from companies that sought to do business with the world body.

Yakovlev, a 52-year-old Russian, pleaded guilty to three counts in U.S. District Court in Manhattan -- conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.

The bribes came from three unidentified companies -- all U.N. vendors -- between 2001 and 2005, prosecutors said.

His attorney, Arkady Bukh, said Yakovlev agreed to plead guilty in the hopes of receiving a more lenient sentence. Bukh would not say whether Yakovlev is cooperating with investigators.

Yakovlev surrendered to authorities Monday after the United Nations lifted the diplomatic immunity that protects its employees from prosecution. He has no prior criminal record.

The move by prosecutors came just as a panel appointed by the United Nations to probe the oil-for-food program issued a harsh report on Yakovlev's actions. (Full story)

The Independent Inquiry Committee investigation, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, found that more than $1.3 million was wired into an account for a dummy firm called Moxyco that Yakovlev established in 2000 in the Caribbean island of Antigua.

Volcker reported that "more than $950,000 of these payments came from various companies or persons affiliated with such companies that collectively won more than $79 million in United Nations contracts and purchase orders."

Volcker told CNN in an interview, "Mr. Yakovlev received bribes." He said the payments were not necessarily associated with oil-for-food business.

A law enforcement source said the timing of Volcker's report and the plea was "coincidental," noting that Volcker was originally going to report Tuesday.

Yakovlev was initially investigated for soliciting a bribe from a French company that bid for a key U.N. contract to monitor Iraqi oil exports made under the oil-for-food program, which supplied Iraq with food and medicine during years of international sanctions.

That company, Societe General de Surveillance, did not win the contract; it went instead to Saybolt, which bid slightly less. Nor did the Volcker committee find evidence that the company paid a bribe.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, said Yakovlev's illicit funds landed in bank accounts he controlled in New York City and Yonkers, the city in New York's Westchester County where he lives.

Yakovlev resigned his U.N. job in June amid allegations that he helped his son get a job with a firm doing business with the world body.

U.N. officials lifted Yakovlev's diplomatic immunity Monday afternoon at prosecutors' request, said Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff for Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Brown said the United Nations brought the allegations to the U.S. attorney's office in New York "more than a month ago" and has been sharing information with prosecutors as part of efforts to reform the world body.

Yakovlev was released on $400,000 bail after pleading guilty. No sentencing date has been set.

Federal and state prosecutors also are investigating Benon Sevan, who ran the oil-for-food program for seven years.

Volcker's panel said Monday that Sevan received more than $147,000 in kickbacks from oil sold under the program. (Full story)

Sevan resigned Sunday from the United Nations. In his resignation letter, he called his management of the program "transparent" and denied any wrongdoing. (Full story)

One company involved in oil-for-food probes, Texas-based Bayoil, and three of its officers were indicted previously on charges they paid illegal kickbacks to the Iraqi regime, which controlled who could buy its oil.

Two other people have been indicted on charges of illegally lobbying for Iraq. One of them, Samir Vicent, pleaded guilty.

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