Tribunal orders United Nations to pay $65,000 to whistleblower

UNITED NATIONS Wed Mar 20, 2013 6:57pm EDT

Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building (C) of the UN headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in New York, September 24, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East

Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building (C) of the UN headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in New York, September 24, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Chip East

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A U.N. whistleblower has been awarded 2 percent of the $3.2 million he wanted by a tribunal that found U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Ethics Office failed to properly review claims he suffered retaliation for alleging U.N. corruption in Kosovo.

The whistleblower, American James Wasserstrom, described the award of $65,000 as disappointing and said on Wednesday it sends the wrong message to other U.N. staff contemplating speaking out. Wasserstrom had headed a U.N. agency overseeing publicly owned companies in Kosovo and drew attention to suspicions of a kickback scheme.

"What this does is it sends a truly ghastly message to whistleblowers inside the U.N.," said Wasserstrom. "Here is a decision that has no financial consequences for the U.N. to speak of, it's so small, it's a dozen plane tickets."

"There are no consequences for retaliators and there are enormous risks for whistleblowers, so where's the incentive to come forward and clean up whatever corruption or mess you uncover," he said.

Wasserstrom, who now works at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said he was considering an appeal.

A spokesman for Ban said that the judgment of the U.N. Dispute Tribunal would not be final until it was confirmed by the U.N. Appeals Tribunal. He said the United Nations was examining the judgment to determine whether it would appeal.

Wasserstrom complained in 2007 to the Ethics Office that he suffered retaliation for reporting alleged misconduct while head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises in Kosovo.

He had told the United Nations he was concerned about corporate governance in Kosovo and alleged the possibility of a kickback scheme tied to a proposed power plant and mine that involved top politicians and senior U.N. officials.

HARM SUFFERED

Instead of being protected as a whistleblower, Wasserstrom claimed he suffered retaliation, which started with his U.N. public utility watchdog office in Kosovo being shut down and his U.N. contract not being renewed.

Wasserstrom quickly took a job advising Pristina airport and Kosovo's telecommunications industry. This contract sparked an investigation by the United Nations, during which Wasserstrom says his passport was taken away, his car and home were searched without a warrant and he was treated like a potential criminal.

The Ethics Office found there was a prima facie, or self-evident, case of retaliation and asked the U.N. Investigations Division to probe further. But after receiving its report in 2008, the Ethics Office concluded there was no retaliation.

The Government Accountability Program, a nonprofit whistleblower watchdog, found the U.N. Ethics Office has dealt with nearly 300 complaints of retaliation since it was created in 2006. A prima facie case of retaliation was found in about 2.7 percent of cases, but relief only recommended in one case.

Wasserstrom took his case to the U.N. Dispute Tribunal, which began work in July 2009 hearing complaints from staff and former staff on administrative decisions. It handed down its ruling on Wasserstrom's case in June.

Tribunal Judge Goolam Meeran issued a decision on compensation dated March 15, 2013.

"The Tribunal has to take into account that the assessment arrived at should be appropriate for the harm suffered. To award a paltry sum will discredit the policy underlying such awards as will an excessive award," Meeran wrote.

He decided that Wasserstrom should be awarded $15,000 in costs and $50,000 for non-pecuniary damages. Meeran said the tribunal has no power to award exemplary or punitive damages.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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