Alexander Yakovlev admitted three charges carrying 20 years each in New York on Monday, as a UN inquiry reported that he had taken almost a million dollars in bribes from companies that won more than $79 million (£44 million) in UN business.
That he surrendered to the authorities in New York and immediately entered guilty pleas suggests that he may have struck a plea bargain to co-operate with prosecutors in return for a lighter sentence.
His lawyer, Arkady Bukh, told The Times that he could not comment because of a confidentiality agreement. “Normally, if you enter a guilty plea in an expedient manner, we expect from a judge quite a lenient sentence,” he said.
UN officials said that they believed Mr Yakovlev would become a co-operating government witness. “It’s obvious. He struck a deal. He’s going to testify,” one UN official said.
Prosecutors said that they were not allowed to comment.
Mr Yakovlev, 52, a Russian once employed in a Soviet- era ministry, worked in the UN procurement division from 1985 until his abrupt resignation after a media leak about the investigation last month.
He was the “line” procurement officer who handled the controversial award of a UN border-inspection contract to a Swiss company that employed the UN Secretary-General’s son, Kojo Annan.
He told UN investigators that he did not know Kojo Annan was involved with the company, Cotecna, even though one of his colleagues, who sat only yards away, said “everyone in her office knew” the UN chief’s son “because he was friendly and good with computers, such that he would help her colleagues with problems”.
The UN inquiry, headed by Paul Volcker, found that Mr Yakovlev had solicited a bribe from another Swiss company called Société Générale de Surveillance for a UN contract to monitor Iraq’s oil shipments. There is no evidence that the bribe was ever paid. The UN investigation found, however, that Mr Yakovlev had taken more than $950,000 from companies and records showed that since 2000 almost $1.3 million was wired into a bank account in Antigua in the name of Moxyco Ltd, controlled by Mr Yakovlev.
He appeared in court after being stripped of his diplomatic immunity by the UN, admitting money laundering, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He was released on $400,000 bail, secured by his house in New York, until his sentencing on February 10.
The case is being handled by federal prosecutors from the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who have vowed to “wring the towel dry” of UN corruption.