15 March 2007

For some strange logic, the disappearance of millions of dollars did not draw much indignation; a long-time change of birth date did.

When we reported two years ago a story about millions of dollars in question during the renovation of the headquarters of W.I.P.O. (World International Property Organization), very few in the mainstream press seemed to notice or care for that matter. At the time, the Swiss authorities were investigating, a well-placed staff member who had received funds went back home while the inevitable name of Ghanian Michael Wilson, of Cotecna fame, came up again. All that seemed like too far away. About $3 million were in question. No problem. But when someone discovered that W.I.P.O. Director General, Kamil Idris, had changed his birth date, it was time for a headline story. As if the way $3 million recently disappeared was hardly relevant compared to a crafty shift of birthdates 24 years ago.

Geneva is a very small big town. Very discreet. Private banks everywhere. Everyone is very polite. Bonjour, merci, au revoir, flutter with the wind in every encounter. Yet it is a small town nevertheless. Particularly if those involved are non-Swiss. Eventually, everyone who matters knows. The Swiss are the first to know and the last to speak out. They investigate. And if need be, Le Tribune de Geneva would raise an item in the third page.

Most international officials in Geneva had known that Kamil Idris had presented himself as nine years older when he first applied for a job in WIPO. He was competing with two much older, more experienced applicants. Instead of 26 August 1954, he flipped it to 1945. A handwriting error, one would claim, later becoming a constant "typo" excuse -- if questioned. While his Sudanese passport and Swiss driver's license show the real date (the Sudanese know; the Swiss don't joke!), the fake date appeared regularly on the U.N. Laissez-Passez and, of course, in the first job application. Now, Idris wants to be younger, not older, to avoid earlier retirement. So he would have no real problem with exposing his real updated version. In fact, Mr. Idris himself initiated the correction sometime last year. After all, it would seem like a minor infringement, a common ploy by ambitious young men only to be appropriately re-adjusted in due course.

What went by the wayside is the news of a 2004 Swiss criminal investigation into millions given by contractors who were building the $60 million new compound to Michael Wilson; a recurring name in the Volcker report. One of the questions revolves around the money that Mr. Wilson paid to Khamis Suedi, a former D-1 who was promoted by Mr. Idris to the rank of Assistant Director General before heading home to Tanzania. We reported that item in unforum.com at the time.

Picking a page from the Oil-For-Food arrangement, WIPO leadership commissioned a highly-regarded group, Ernst & Young, to conduct a review. Not an audit, mind you. Dutifully, it found "certain weaknesses in management," although it did not find evidence of fraud (doesn't it remind you of Volcker?!). There was a question about the villa -- yes villa! -- bought by Mr. Idris near Geneva and the role of WIPO Buildings Division in the installation of a pool; Idris said he paid for it in cash. Of course, he denies any wrongdoing. In fact, a statement described these allegations as groundless and racist. Let's wait for the Swiss' final findings.

As Director General of WIPO, Mr. Idris is part of the senior officials of the U.N. system. Allegations against him will certainly impact negatively on the rest. It may be part of a battle to replace him in that plum post on top of the best located international building in Geneva. The sooner the public is informed, the better for the U.N. system. The clearer the record, the clearer the name. And the birth date.