22 March 2022 – Mukesh Kapila
Grete Faremo, Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Project Services was economical with the truth when she addressed her Global Leadership Meetings on 9th and 16th March. That is a polite way of saying that she lied to her staff.
The GLM was convened in panic after the publication of two articles on 4th March and 9th March, exposing a multi-million ring of fraud and corruption at this multi-billion dollar agency, a critical lynchpin of the United Nations system.
Intimidation and cover-up
Ms Faremo and Syndicate, known officially as the Senior Leadership Team (SLT), did not address any of the substantive points raised in previous articles of this series. She also lied about the role of each of the SLT members in the alleged misappropriation of over US $ 60 million.
To add insult to injury, the Executive Director pleaded for staff support: “We are stronger united together”. Apart from some sycophantic noises from well-known opportunists such as the Director of the Europe Regional Office, there was silence that, in itself, spoke volumes.
A brave soul or two said that they were not with her because they had no part in misappropriating the millions. Others were disappointed at how the top management had let them down. There was understandable anxiety about reputation damage, impact on activities, as well as personal jobs and livelihoods.
Ms Faremo expressed regret at letting staff down, but the mea culpa did not extend to taking responsibility or providing explanation for what went wrong. On the contrary, the SLT huffed and puffed as they recognised that they would hang separately unless they hung together. So, a collective cover-up was in their deluded best interests.
Grete Faremo resigned on 16 March but will stay on till 30 September. That gives her discredited team ample time to clean up the crime scene – get rid of dodgy documents, purge incriminating emails, coerce witnesses, and bribe others to stay quiet.
Continuing information leakage from UNOPS suggest that a cover-up is, indeed, in full swing. An internal indoctrination campaign is underway with tactics not unknown among famous authoritarian regimes around the world. Unpalatable facts are being finessed and busy personnel asked to do second duty as spin doctors.
That is helped by the culture of intimidation that is long-established at UNOPS. A serving staff likened it to a modern version of the Spanish Inquisition. Although thumbscrews are not used nowadays, the Executive Director’s question to her global management: “Are you with us?” had a distinctly sinister ring, as a campaign to find moles and whistle-blowers was launched.
The key lies by Ms Faremo
Grete Faremo has some physical health problems for which we wish her well. But she is not known to suffer from any memory disorder. She is also not naive or stupid, as an acclaimed business leader. Admittedly, a controversial previous political career (as a Norwegian minister) would have provided useful skills in dissembling. She appears to have used these to the fullest extent, in her second career in the unfortunate UNOPS. The major fibs – there are others – she rolled out at the Global Leadership meeting are as follows:
First and foremost, the due diligence exercise carried out on Sustainable Housing Solutions Ltd. highlighted a ton of red flags which were wilfully disregarded by Ms Faremo and her Senior Leadership Team. She claimed she had no idea of such issues. Placing all blame on her own deputy, Mr Vanshelboim, she said that she is still trying to obtain information on what happened.
The whole scam happened on Ms Faremo’s patch and under her explicit leadership and direction. But, shamelessly, she now claims that she didn’t know what was going on. At the very least, one can’t stop wondering why no action was taken prior to Mr Vanshelboim’s placement on administrative leave in December 2021, by which time the fowls had flown the coop.
Second, Ms Faremo claimed that the most questionable arrangement (prohibited under UN rules) with the son of her General Legal Counsel, James Provenzano , was reviewed and approved by the UNOPS Ethics Officer, Kathryn Higgs. This is even more problematic as it demonstrates that even the Ethics and Compliance function – which is not independent and reports to the Executive Director herself – is unfit for purpose and can’t be trusted.
Third, Ms Faremo said that, because of his son’s involvement, General Counsel Provenzano had recused himself on decisions that impacted on associated business. That is untrue. From piecing together the sequence of events and decisions taken at UNOPS, the manicured digits of Mr Provenzano appear deep into the depths of the projects constructed around ‘We are The Oceans’ (US$5 million drained) and SHS (approx US$58 million siphoned).
Fourth, Ms Faremo claimed that her Chief Financial Officer, Marianne de la Touche was the person who reported the matter to the UN Board of Auditors. That is another blatant lie. There was only one whistleblower in this case and that was not Ms De La Touche. The CFO’s interactions with the UN auditors was years after she, herself, had authorised the disbursement of millions of dollars to a company with no track record and whose owner was met at a cocktail party in New York City.
And while the smallest NGO in Afghanistan must submit a financial guarantee to receive advance payments, no such requirement was imposed by Ms De La Touche who should have stopped these transactions. It was her duty as CFO to ensure that every donated taxpayer dollar is accounted for and spent for true development needs, not to gamble with or to enrich UNOPS itself.
The High Priestess
Meanwhile, Grete Faremo has adopted a more divine role. At the Global leadership Meeting, she defended her SLT, sang their virtues and, rather than seeking accountability, absolved them of all ‘sins’.
Ms Faremo’s associates looked suitably embarrassed but simpered dutifully in return. In absolving her Syndicate of any wrong doing, the Executive Director has become the self-appointed High Priestess of the cult she has built around her. Even your neighbourhood priest, who is properly licensed to absolve your wrongs, demands some penance in return for bestowing the grace that washes away your transgressions. Ms Faremo has instead, in her own rigged game of Monopoly, used her Chief Banker privilege to grant a get-out-of-jail- free card to co-conspirators.
UNOPS leadership has misjudged the mood
The Syndicate has misjudged the mood of the moment. We live at a time when such wrong-doings can’t stay hidden, as in past corruption at UN agencies. For starters, in the digital age, nothing can ever be expunged even if you smash up your hard disk, as copies of correspondence are scattered far and wide and forensics can detect minute digital trails. This has already made a casualty of the suspended Deputy Executive Director Vitaly Vanshelboim. There is so much information there – and yet more is coming out as numerous past and present staff come forth.
Second, and more important, in the age of citizen communications, the world mood is different and setting it is no longer dependent solely on mass media coverage by The Guardian or The New York Times (good as they are).
Resistance is mounting
Thus, as the genie is now out of the bottle, no witch-hunts and coverups will succeed at UNOPS. The original whistleblower (not the source of my own information) followed the correct protocols and reported the concerns with full evidence to the designated authorities. But nothing happened. The whistleblower is paying a heavy price for their courage and professional dedication to duty.
Nevertheless, it is now clear that the vast majority of the rank-and-file at UNOPS are appalled by the venal conduct of their leaders. They are resisting getting suborned into a criminal enterprise that has trashed their otherwise good work. Other staff with further damning information are also ready to come forth.
If UNOPS sets up an internal Truth Commission, the queue of witnesses would create a traffic jam at its Copenhagen headquarters. They recognise their moral historic duty to stand up against “corruption, fraud, mismanagement and abuse of authority” (in the words of one staff) and rescue their beloved organisation that has been captured by the Syndicate.
It is somewhat perplexing to understand why Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations has, so far, taken a laid back approach. After all, his Office of Internal Oversight Services who has been aware of the brewing scandal at UNOPS for some time. Mr Guterres needs to ensure that the whole management and leadership team at UNOPS and not just Grete Faremo are sent packing as speedily as possible.
We need UNOPS and it will recover. But that requires the organisation to be cleaned up, starting from the top. Meanwhile, it is very important that donors stop funding UNOPS until there is complete change there, as well as full independent investigation and accountability for offences committed. Otherwise, billions of dollars remain at risk, even as donors’ objective to help poor and needy people around the world are betrayed.
Not a one-man heist
A sum approaching US$60 million (or even more) can’t be stolen by any individual acting on their own, even the demonically brilliant practitioner of the dark arts, Vitaly Vanshelboim. The people who enabled him were Ms Faremo herself and her SLT, personally appointed by Ms Faremo.
She also used her executive privilege to ignore or tear up the checks-and balances at UNOPS that would have prevented this crime. Ms Faremo’s flawed management and control system is akin to a digital crook implanting a virus deliberately into a computer programme, and then shutting off the anti-virus to prevent, scan, and remove incoming threats in real time.
While Mr Vanshelboim may have been fingered as the Chief Crook, there is a whiff of scape-goatery around the whole sorry saga. We know from experience that once a web of fraud and corruption is spun, it entangles many. So, the troubling question is whether UNOPS’s top leadership team have also made corrupt personal gains, or will do so in the future, when the hue and cry dies down? A bit like old-fashioned bank robbers who hide their stash somewhere until it is safe to retrieve. In this case, the robbery at UNOPS is from the ragged pockets of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
In any case, even if Ms Faremo and her Syndicate members have not stashed ill-gotten gains in their own suitcases, the issue of their personal corruption is moot if they have, instead, directly and indirectly, enabled one of their own team to defraud and misappropriate UNOPS funds.
The personal contributions of individual members of the Senior Leadership Team to the United Nations system’s heist of the decade deserve their own telling.
That is for another day.