Rep. Charles Rangel is having an unpleasant season, convicted on Tuesday by a House panel on 11 counts of ethics violations — including failure to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets.
Rangel would have done far better to work for the United Nations. For UN senior staff members, as long as they don’t get carried away and attempt an act of genuine transparency, it is virtually impossible to fail to properly disclose their personal financial assets to the public. That’s not because they are all paragons of disclosure. The reason they can hardly fail is that the UN has redefined the procedure of “public disclosure” to mean that UN officials do not need to disclose to the public anything whatsoever. This is the twisted product of the 2006 “reforms,” in which the Oil-for-Food-tainted UN promised greater transparency.
In the U.S. House, as the Rangel case reminds us, the requirements of disclosure involve enough detail so you can check out — with names and addresses attached — such information as, say, how much Rep. Nancy Pelosi says she made in rental income, or in Miscrosoft dividends. If you want to play around with this yourself, just type in the name of your favorite representative in the search space on this web page for the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives.
But at the UN, UN senior officials — unlike Rep. Charlie Rangel and his colleagues — get a choice. Collectively, they are entrusted with handling billions of U.S. tax dollars (the U.S. chips in more than $6 billion per year, bankrolling roughly one-quarter of the UN’s system-wide budget), and they serve in high positions of global, public trust. But when it comes to disclosing their personal finances to the public, UN senior officials may, at their own discretion, opt out entirely and have the UN release zilch. Or — I’m not making this up — they can allow the release of a one-page form on which they check a box to disclose only that they don’t want to disclose anything (for instance, check out the 2009 “public disclosure” form of one of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s special envoys for climate change, Ricardo Lagos Escobar)
Or, there’s a third way, which at the UN represents going all out on public disclosure. They can allow the UN to release to the public a one-page form on which they declare their personal financial circumstances in terms so vague that the listings include only the broadest generic descriptions, such as “house” — with no dollar amounts attached. For instance, here’s the “public disclosure” form of UN Under-Secretary General Sha Zukang, who hails from China and who recently made waves by presenting an award to the retired Chinese defense minister who had operational command of the crushing of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Sha lists just two items: “Private House, joint with spouse, China,” and “Chinese Bonds, joint with spouse: Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.”
Though, in fairness to Sha Zukang, his public disclosure form provides more information than many. At least he lists a house and gives the name of the bank in which he holds his bonds — even if there’s no clue whether these assets are worth $10 or $10 million. There are other officials who apparently have no assets, no liabilities, no house, no rental income, no nothin’ — or at least nothing they consider relevant to the process of public disclosure. For instance, the secretary-general’s high representative for the Iranian-grandfathered, globe girdling initiative known as the Alliance of Civilizations, Jorge Sampaio, a former president of Portugal, on his UN public disclosure form, discloses exactly one thing: “I am not engaged in any outside activities at the present time.”
But don’t take my word for just how obfuscatory UN “public disclosure” can get. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on his official UN web site, has an entire section labeled “Public Disclosure,” where, if you scroll down, you can search for yourself — here are the forms for 2009. I have more on the origins and oddities of this UN version of transparency in my Forbes.com column this week on “The Deepening Mysteries of UN Financial Disclosure,”noting that in the process of UN disclosure, the Russian official who has been running the grand UN complex in Geneva since 2002 has gone from disclosing “Bank Savings accounts” as his sole assets, to listing, simply, “Nil.”
No one’s saying that any of these UN officials, individually, are doing anything wrong. Apparently, they are complying with the UN system in ways that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is proud to post on his official UN site under the category of “Ethical Standards.” I’m just saying, Charlie Rangel never had it this good.