First charges filed in oil-for-food case

NEW YORK -- A federal prosecutor investigating corruption in the $64 billion oil-for-food program issued the case's first criminal charges against a U.N. official, accusing a former Russian procurement officer of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from companies doing business with the United Nations.

Alexander Yakovlev, 52, pleaded guilty to three counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering, said David N. Kelley, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. If convicted, he could face up to 60 years in prison.

The case against Yakovlev grew out of the United Nations' own investigation of its marred oil-for-food program, and came on a day when a U.N.-appointed panel accused Benon V. Sevan, the program's former director, of receiving nearly $150,000 in kickbacks from a company run by relatives of former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The criminal charges represented a turning point in the U.N. scandal, which until now had yielded no public evidence that U.N. officials had broken any laws. Even so, the allegations of corruption had damaged U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's standing and shaken confidence in the organization.

Monday's events also signaled that U.N. investigators and prosecutors have expanded their probes beyond the oil program to include allegations of corruption in other parts of the U.N. bureaucracy.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, who is leading the U.N. investigation, said Yakovlev tried to solicit bribes from a Swiss company that was bidding for business in the oil program. In addition, Volcker alleged that Yakovlev received more than $950,000 in an offshore bank account from contractors doing other types of business with the United Nations.