‘You may be looking at the last UN whistleblowers ever to come forward’ lawmakers told

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The US House Foreign Affairs joint sub-committee in Washington heard evidence of continued bizarre and allegedly illegal behaviour by Francis Gurry, the boss of the UN’s patent body.

The Committee promised yesterday to take action to demand reform of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and push for publication of the UN’s own internal report into allegations at the agency.

Congressman Brad Sherman described WIPO as “the FIFA of UN agencies”. Witness James Pooley agreed, saying when he first read about behaviour at FIFA he was reminded of his time at WIPO.

The hearing was introduced by Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, who noted the bravery and sacrifice of the two main witnesses, Miranda Brown and James Pooley.

She said she had complained to the State Department after “we learned from our witnesses about Gurry’s potential vote-buying and nepotism, about his proposal for a WIPO satellite office in Iran, about his involvement in the theft of WIPO employees’ personal items to extract their DNA, and about his retaliations against Mr. Pooley and Dr. Brown, as well as the eventual firing of Mr. Moncef Kateb”.

She said: “Despite this, the State Department did nada, zilch, zippo, nothing to block his re-election. Only last year did the State Department wake up to Gurry’s repulsive behaviour and withhold a portion of US funding for WIPO.”

The committee also heard evidence from former deputy director of technology James Pooley and former special adviser to Mr Gurry, Miranda Brown. Both claimed their initial complaints were met with severe retaliation by Gurry. A lawyer representing the staff council Matthew Parish also gave evidence.

The committee heard claims that Gurry sent an HP Proliant DL360 G7 server, a $14,000 high-end printer, a 24TB disk array and a SonicWall firewall to North Korea. Payment for the shipment was intercepted by the Bank of America because it broke sanctions, they were told. When challenged Gurry reportedly said WIPO was not subject to UN Security Council sanctions or US restrictions against trading with North Korea.

The committee was told that the computer equipment was sent to North Korea in return for their vote in favour of Gurry’s re-election. Pooley said the only use he could see for the firewall was to prevent North Korean citizens using the equipment to access the internet.

He said he had warned Gurry that a US citizen would go to prison for sending such hardware to North Korea and it would be seen as unacceptable for a UN agency to do the same thing. Gurry said that he didn’t care what the US thought because WIPO did not have to follow US laws.

He also over-ruled a competitive IT procurement process to hand a contract to a company run by friend of his, claimed Pooley. Pooley reported both these events to the chair of the member states, which provides nominal oversight of the organisation. He also reported Gurry for allegedly stealing staff DNA samples in an effort to find the authors of anonymous letters sent to the organisation. Staff were investigated by Swiss police despite them not having their diplomatic immunity lifted.

No action was taken, but Pooley was visited by WIPO’s legal officer and a US reporter who wrote about Pooley’s complaint was threatened with legal action in Switzerland. The Register later published Pooley’s full report.

Pooley told the committee: “Any one of these three examples in a private company or a public institution would have resulted in the executive being dismissed by the board.”

Pooley ended by quoting Ronald Reagan: “There are no easy answers but there are simple answers and we must do what we know is right.”

Miranda Brown told the committee that when she first received a phone call about payment for computer equipment being sent to North Korea she thought it was a joke. But she said when she consulted Gurry he said he was not bound by US or UN regulations and she should push payment through. She said she later learned a similar deal had been done with Iran.

Committee chairman Smith said of Gurry’s claim that WIPO was not covered by UN sanctions: “Are you kidding me?”

The committee was extremely critical of the Australian government, which has shown unswerving support for Gurry, and, according witness testimony at the hearing, pressured the US to support his re-election in 2014.

Gurry is the highest-ranking Australian at the UN.

Pooley said the US and Australia had a very close relationship but the US should have warned Australia off.

Pooley said: “Friends shouldn’t let friends drive drunk.”

The committee is calling for an audit of WIPO as well as full disclosure and publication of the OIOS report. It is still deciding whether to call for Gurry’s resignation and whether to explicitly criticise the Australian government.

Chairman Smith said Australia had a duty, if using its influence in favour of Gurry, to do due diligence on his behaviour. Smith said the Australian ambassador to Washington had declined to give evidence but he repeated his invitation to talk to the committee either publicly or privately.

Smith asked what action should be taken. Pooley said a resolution by Congress would be very useful to send a message both to Geneva but also to US inventors whose payments for patents make up the majority of WIPO funding.

The US government last year withheld 15 per cent of its funding for WIPO because of retaliation taken against whistleblowers.

Witnesses urged the committee to push for the publication of the secret Organisation of Internal Oversight report which is believed to have found against Gurry.

The report was sent to Colombian ambassador and chair of the member states Gabriel Duque, but he has not responded to requests from The Register or from lawyers representing dismissed WIPO staff and WIPO’s Staff Council.

Gurry blocked his staff from attending previous hearings of the committee, according to the whistle-blowers. He hired a Washington lobbyist firm in 2012.

Pooley said that diplomatic immunity for all UN officials should be re-examined. He said: “There needs to be a different standard so they can’t just retreat into their safe harbour.”

Gurry’s diplomatic immunity cannot be lifted without agreement of all member states – 185 countries.

Pooley added that WIPO needs an external board of governance which cannot be manipulated by the Director General.

Finally, Pooley said that if action was not taken by Congress, other whistleblowers at the UN would never take action.

He said: “Many others within UN organisations are watching…if we don’t achieve something useful…you may be looking at the last UN whistleblowers ever to come forward.”

Matthew Parish was asked if WIPO was typical of UN organisations in how it deals with staff complaints. He said the situation was improving but there were still problems with organisations he described as being on the “periphery” of the UN.

He said the problem with complaint procedures at WIPO was that they all end with the Director General, so complaints against the office itself are simply squashed.

Whistleblowers at other UN agencies have been sacked for reporting allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and for reporting corrupt payments in Kosovo.

Neither WIPO nor Ambassador Gabriel Duque responded to emails asking for comment.

John Oates