American official at Unesco …

American official at Unesco quits amid auditing rebuke, by Alan Riding, published on International Heral Tribune Europe, March 20, 2007.

PARIS: The highest-ranking American official at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization resigned just days before an official audit reported that he had violated Unesco’s rules by granting seven contracts to an American consulting firm without an open bidding procedure.

The official, Peter Smith, who had served for 21 months as assistant director general for education at Unesco’s Paris headquarters, said in a letter dated March 12 that he was resigning because of a “threat against my life, the inadequate support and follow-up to that threat, and a negative climate in the workplace.”

He said that he would step down when his contract ended on June 17. But last week, Unesco’s director general, Koichiro Matsuura, accepted his resignation with immediate effect.

Smith, a 61-year-old former president of California State University, Monterey Bay, who represented Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from 1989 to 1990, has reportedly left France and could not be reached for comment on the audit, which was made public Monday.

The report by France’s Cour des Comptes, an independent accounting body that supervises the French government and is also Unesco’s external auditor, was requested last fall by Unesco’s executive board after staff members had complained about contracts worth $2.1 million granted by Smith to Navigant Consulting, a Chicago-based firm.

Among its findings, the Cour des Comptes said that the reasons for selecting Navigant “are not immediately apparent.” It noted that the “restricted bidding procedure” used “was conducted in a way that rendered it ineffective.”

It said that “incomplete” information on the bidding procedure was provided to Unesco’s contracts committee. It concluded that “the fees payable on the various contracts were not negotiated in any verifiable manner.”

A Unesco spokeswoman, Sue Williams, said that Matsuura had agreed to implement the 55-page report’s recommendations for tightening Unesco contract procedures. She said that any further response to the report would come from the 58-nation executive board, which would meet here next month.

The case represents something of an embarrassment to the United States, which ended a 19-year boycott of Unesco in 2003 amid pledges to accelerate reforms of the organization. At the time, with the Bush administration giving priority to Unesco’s work in education, it was considered logical for an American to head up its education department.

“It’s a blow to the United States because it always spoke of moralizing Unesco,” said an ambassador to Unesco, who asked not to be named because of his country’s ties with the United States.

Unesco officials said that, after Smith took up his post in June 2005, he immediately embarked on reorganizing the education department. But diplomats said that they were surprised early last year when he called an informal meeting of ambassadors to discuss his plans. At the meeting, they said, the presentation was made, not by Smith, but by Letitia Chambers, managing director of Navigant’s Washington office.

In his resignation letter, Smith made no direct reference to Chambers, but he noted that, in his reform plan, “the products developed by our staff with Navigant Consulting were essential elements of the overall effort.”

He said that he agreed with changes recommended by the organization’s external auditor. However, much of his letter was devoted to praising his department’s work and complaining about internal resistance to the reforms. “There is a small group who have worked steadily since the unveiling of the reform recommendations,” he wrote to Matsuura, “to kill the reforms by discrediting me, attacking you and demonizing America.”

He also recalled that on Feb. 9 he received a written death threat, to which he felt Unesco responded inadequately. Williams, the Unesco spokeswoman, said that the French police had investigated the death threat and recommended to Smith that he not discuss it publicly. (Int. Herald Tribune Europe).

Comments are closed.