UN strikes Russian, Italian firms from vendor list

UNITED NATIONS, March 16 (Reuters) - The United Nations removed two firms from its list of contractors and suspended two others, including the big Russian air shipper Volga-Dnepr, during a probe of bribes to a former U.N. official.

The two struck from doing future business with the United Nations were Cogim SPA, an Italian-based firm that builds prefabricated units, mainly for armed forces around the world, including the U.S. military, according to its Web site. The second was the Avicos Insurance Company of Russia, the United Nations said on Friday.

In addition to Volga-Dnepr, the world body suspended Corimec Italiana SPA, which also produced prefabricated units and had contracts for U.N. peacekeepers, while the United Nations continues investigating.

U.N. spokeswoman Michelle Montas said several U.N. bodies, including a special task force investigating procurement fraud, took the action because of the companies’ “inappropriate relationship” with the former U.N. official.

The official, U.N. sources said, was Alexander Yakovlev, a procurement officer, who pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in 2005 to soliciting bribes, wire fraud and money laundering. He has admitted accepting nearly $1 million in bribes from U.N. contractors.

Yakovlev then cooperated with prosecutors and recently testified in the trial of a Russian diplomat, Vladimir Kuznetsov, who was convicted earlier this month of money laundering in helping Yakovlev hide the payments.

Volga-Dnepr, Russia’s long-haul air shipper, recently signed a deal with Boeing Corp. to buy five long-range 747 8F jets in a deal worth $1.4 billion.

The company’s Irish subsidiary, Volga-Dnepr Ltd., was also suspended from bidding for U.N. contracts.

Yakovlev testified he agreed to act as a consultant for Volga-Dnepr, which bid on some 30 U.N. contracts and won about a dozen of them, mainly in 2000 and 2001.

Some of the suspicious contracts grew out of a criminal probe into corruption in the defunct $64 billion humanitarian U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq.

The program, which began in late 1996 and ended in 2003, was first investigated by a U.N.-established commission headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who traced about $950,000 in kickbacks to Yakovlev.

Another source of lucrative contracts are the 18 U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world, with close to 100,000 personnel at a cost of some $5 billion this year.

The United Nations lifted both Yakovlev’s and Kuznetsov’s diplomatic immunity. Russia, which paid for Kuznetsov’s defense, argued he had a diplomatic passport and visa and said prosecutors violated due process in the trial.