UN Can’t Account for Millions Sent to Afghan Election Board

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Pro Publica

UN Can’t Account for Millions Sent to Afghan Election Board

by
T. Christian Miller and Dafna Linzer

The United Nations cannot account for tens of millions of dollars
provided to the troubled Afghan election commission, according to two
confidential U.N. audits and interviews with current and former senior
diplomats. (Read both [1] audits [2].)

As
Afghanistan prepares for a second round of national voting, the
documents and interviews paint the fullest picture to date of the
finances of the election commission, which has been accused of
facilitating election fraud and operating ghost polling places. The new
disclosures also deepen the questions about the U.N.'s oversight of
money provided by the United States and other nations to ensure a fair
election in Afghanistan.

"Everybody kept sending money" to the
elections commission, said Peter Galbraith, the former deputy chief of
the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. "Nobody put the brakes on. U.S.
taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a fraudulent
election." Galbraith, a deputy to the senior U.N. official in
Afghanistan, was fired last month [3] after protesting fraud in the elections.

The
audits come as President Barack Obama is struggling to craft a war
policy for Afghanistan that would establish a stable government in a
country with few democratic traditions. Senior aides have made clear
that Obama will not commit to sending additional troops until there is
a legitimately elected government in Kabul. On Wednesday, insurgents stormed [4] a housing compound primarily occupied by U.N. election officials, killing eight people, including two election workers.

Afghanistan's
Independent Election Commission initially reported that President Hamid
Karzai had won the majority of votes in the August election. A recount
was ordered after another U.N.-backed panel uncovered evidence of
widespread fraud. After weeks of prodding from the Obama
administration, Karzai agreed last week to a runoff.

The U.N.
audit reports, which are near completion but still in draft form, are
likely to fuel debate over the Afghanistan election commission's
ability to carry out the new round of voting. Karzai's challenger,
Abdullah Abdullah, has suggested he may boycott the elections unless
Karzai dismisses the chairman and two other commissioners.

In
interviews, senior U.S. and U.N. officials said that U.N. leaders had
ignored warnings as far back as 2007 that the election commission was a
pro-Karzai body with few internal controls.

Another top official
in the U.N.'s Afghanistan mission, Robert Watkins, acknowledged in an
interview that some commission employees had contributed to the fraud
in the first round of voting.

"It's clear that some of the
people" working for the commission at the polling centers "were
complicit in fraud," Watkins said. "Some of the staff hired were not
working in the best interests of impartial elections."

But
Watkins said the United Nations is working to improve the commission's
performance in the runoff. He said the U.N. planned to slash the number
of poll workers and blackball any that may have been implicated in
fraud in the August elections.

As of April 2009, the U.N. had
spent $72.4 million supporting the commission, with $56.7 million of
that coming from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the
audit said. Total election costs are now estimated at greater than $300
million, with the U.S. providing a third to half the total funding,
according to one senior U.N. official familiar with the elections
process.

The draft audit reports indicate that as many as
one-third of payroll requests from the Afghan commission to the United
Nations included "discrepancies," such as incorrect names or amounts.

In
another instance, the U.N. Development Program paid $6.8 million for
transportation services in areas where no U.N. officials were present.
Auditors found that the development agency had "inadequate controls"
over U.S. taxpayer money used to fund the commission.

A UNDP
spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said he could not comment on specific
findings in the audits, since they were still in draft form. However,
he said the agency strived to rigorously account for spending despite
operating in a war zone.

"The insecurity, the lack of
infrastructure, the pervasive corruption and harshness of the terrain
make the implementation of any project extremely difficult," Dujarric
said. "That being said, those challenges in no way absolve us of
constantly doing our utmost to ensure that monies given to us by donors
are properly spent and accounted for."

Watkins acknowledged that
the U.N. had concerns about the commission as elections approached. The
development agency works closely with the commission, paying salaries,
buying supplies and handling logistical questions.

However, he
said no evidence had surfaced that money flowing to the commission had
been used to buy votes or bribe officials. "The indications were that
(the commission) did not have sufficient controls in place. I can't
jump to the conclusion that the money was misappropriated."

Watkins
said he was "much more confident" about the commission's spending
practices after the U.N. tightened controls this summer. "I think we
have a good partner" in the commission, Watkins said.

The U.N.,
he said, had suggested cutting the number of polling workers from
160,000 to 60,000 for the runoff election, in part to ensure
better-trained workers. The smaller work force also reflects an effort
by the U.N. to have fewer polling stations and fewer workers per
station. He also said the U.N. would blackball at least 200 workers who
had been linked to voting centers where fraud was alleged.

In
public statements, commission officials have not yet committed to
reducing staff or polling stations. A commission spokesman did not
return a request for comment.

The confidential reports are being
written by two U.N. audit agencies to examine charges that the U.N. had
failed to safeguard $263 million in money from the U.S. Agency for
International Development that was channeled through the development
agency to fund the elections and rebuilding projects. USAID money
accounted for about 40 percent of U.N. spending in Afghanistan between
2003 and 2009, the audits said.

Overall, the audits found that U.N. monitoring of U.S. taxpayer funds was "seriously inadequate [5]."
Auditors could not find receipts, work plans or documentation to back
up costs for projects such as roads and bridges. U.N. officials did not
conduct site visits to confirm work and did not prepare financial
reports for donor countries like the U.S., the audits found.

The
main focus for criticism, however, was U.N. support of the election
commission, a seven-member board whose members were appointed by
Karzai. Using U.S. money, the U.N. development agency paid for
commission salaries, helped contract out services and was supposed to
train the commission to carry out its election responsibilities
independently.

But the audit found that the development agency project was "not well managed [6]" and contained several "weaknesses [7]."

Auditors
found that the U.N. development agency had sent more than $7 million to
the elections commission -- including cash payments to temporary staff
-- without proof of expenditures.

The commission also failed to
send any financial reports to the U.N. between September 2008 and June
2009, despite a requirement for monthly statements. The U.N. sent $9
million in total to the commission without ever receiving a financial
report, the audit said.

The auditors made no findings as to
whether the money that flowed to the commission was implicated in the
fraudulent vote counting. Auditors said that they had hired an outside
audit firm to conduct a more detailed review.

Harry Edwards, a spokesman for USAID, said the agency had not seen the audits and could not comment.

Galbraith
cautioned against drawing conclusions as to whether U.N. oversight of
financial issues played a significant role in the voting fraud. He
blamed Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who is the senior U.N. official
in Afghanistan and his former boss, as well as himself, for not
flagging problems with the commission earlier. Eide has denied any
effort to cover up evidence of fraud in the elections process.

"The
flaw was not a management flaw," Galbraith said. "It was a political
flaw to put all this money into an institution that was not as
advertised. It was a political judgment not to say, 'if you want us to
pay for these elections, then we insist you do them in this way.'"

One
former U.N. official with knowledge of the elections process said that
the allegations of financial mismanagement were not surprising. The
official, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of
the topic, said that neither the U.N. nor the elections commission had
a well-developed accounting program.

The commission "had no
control over their financial management side," the U.N. official said.
"It was chaotic. There was no outside oversight."

Instead, this
official said that senior U.N. and U.S. diplomats pushed for the U.N.
development agency to "deliver" the election by working with the
elections commission -- despite warnings that the commission was not
truly independent.

"Nobody was paying attention. Nobody wanted to do anything about" the problems at the election commission, the official said.

The
draft audits are the latest sign of problems with U.N. oversight of
U.S. money in Afghanistan. Last year, the USAID inspector general
issued a report charging that the U.N. had failed to complete
U.S.-funded rebuilding projects and stonewalled an investigation into
the $25.6 million program. USAID's inspector general continues to
investigate Gary K. Helseth, who headed the U.N. Office for Project
Services between 2003 and 2006, in connection with the rebuilding
program, a spokeswoman said. Helseth's attorney did not return a
request for comment.

The U.N. audits, however, also criticized
the work of USAID's inspector general. The USAID report, for instance,
contained allegations that Mark Oviatt, the senior UNOPS official who
replaced Helseth, had used USAID money to renovate a guest house for
himself. Instead, the audit found that the U.N. had paid $35,000 out of
its own pocket to conduct the renovation. Oviatt declined comment.

The
U.N. audits also chastised the inspector general's report for
attempting to shirk USAID's responsibility for problems with the
development projects.

Donna Dinkler, a spokeswoman for USAID's inspector general, said, "They can say what they want, but we stand by our findings."

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