GENEVA -- An international accounting firm has said it has yet to find any evidence of bribery in its examination of the awarding of a UN construction contract but it was too soon to rule out any wrongdoing.
The firm Ernst & Young said a criminal investigation by a Swiss judge now underway will determine whether a bribe was paid to influence the selection of the winning contractor for renovation work at the Geneva headquarters of the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO.
Geneva Magistrate Jean-Bernard Schmid said he is examining whether a friend of the family of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acted illegally in obtaining a fee of $3 million from construction companies that won contracts to renovate the building.
Schmid said three construction firms paid Ghanaian businessman Michael Wilson's consulting company the $3 million in connection with their $45 million winning bid for the renovations.
Wilson, who was mentioned repeatedly in UN oil-for-food investigations, was a former vice president at Swiss-based company Cotecna Inspection S.A., which certified deals for humanitarian supplies to Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Cotecna employed Kofi Annan's son, Kojo, and was awarded an oil-for-food contract.
Wilson was a childhood friend of Kojo Annan.
One of the key issues in an independent UN inquiry into the oil-for-food affair has been whether Kofi Annan was guilty of a conflict of interest because the UN awarded the contract to Cotecna while his son was a consultant for the company. But the inquiry found insufficient evidence that Kofi Annan knew about the contract award to Cotecna.
Ernst & Young said its two-month investigation ''to date has not provided any evidence of bribery in connection with the renovation," according to a copy of a confidential report by the firm obtained recently by The Associated Press.
But it added that ''the existence of financial wrongdoing can be neither excluded nor confirmed."
''The criminal inquiry is still ongoing and could lead to new elements. It is therefore premature to make a pronouncement on the reliability of allegations" on the building renovation, it said.
The full report contrasted with what WIPO said last week when it claimed Ernst & Young had brought ''to an end the recent allegations and unfounded attacks on the organization that have appeared in a few news media." WIPO refused to make the full report public.
In the report obtained by the Associated Press, Ernst & Young said ''certain weaknesses in the management of the organization, such as described in this report, constitute a factor which might lead to irregularities being committed." It noted that the final report of the UN oil-for-food investigation led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker in October referred to payments by Wilson to a senior WIPO official. Ernst & Young referred to Wilson only as ''Mr. W." and did not identify the senior WIPO official, but the Volcker report used both their names.
According to the Volcker report, Khamis Suedi, at the time director of the office of strategic policy and planning at WIPO, said he received $256,000 from Wilson, but claimed it was not connected in any way to the UN agency.
Suedi, who resigned earlier this year, told WIPO he had received the money for a hotel business venture in Tanzania unrelated to his job at the agency, said the Volcker report.
Efforts to reach Wilson were unsuccessful.
US officials have said the Ernst & Young report should in no way be considered an exoneration.