29 February 2016
by John Kehoe

US blasts Australia over Francis Gurry scandal

United States politicians lashed the federal government for standing by Australia's most senior United Nations diplomat over allegations Francis Gurry sidestepped international sanctions to ship computers to North Korea in exchange for the rogue state supporting him at UN elections.

Likening the claims to a "FIFA" vote rigging scandal, influential Congress committee leaders probing the long-standing allegations demanded Australia force Dr Gurry to resign as director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

The spat has fuelled rare diplomatic tensions between the usually tight knit Australian and United States' political systems.

Chairman of the US House subcommittee for international organisations, Republican Christopher Smith, said he was "shocked" and "bewildered" by the Australian inaction.

"The Australians are very close friends and allies," he said at a hearing on Wednesday.

"If you have a bad apple, expunge your bad apple. This is hurting their reputation."

Switzerland-based WIPO, led by Dr Gurry since 2008, is the powerful UN agency that rules on thousands of international patent and trademark applications, employs about 1300 people and has an annual budget of almost $1 billion.

In explosive testimony in Washington on Wednesday, Dr Gurry was also accused by self-proclaimed whistleblowers, Australian former diplomat Miranda Brown and American ex-WIPO official Jim Pooley, of other acts of misconduct.

The extraordinary claims include that he ignored diplomatic immunity rights of staff and orchestrated the so-called "theft" of DNA from personal items belonging to WIPO colleagues, to help Swiss police track down a culprit who anonymously sent defamatory letters about Dr Gurry to him and WIPO staff in 2007.

Mr Pooley also claimed that Dr Gurry had interfered in a procurement tender for IT equipment, to award the contract to a person he knew at a Sydney digital consulting firm.

The allegations over the past two years, have been repeatedly denied by Dr Gurry and the Sydney firm.

After several start-stop internal evaluations by WIPO that were halted or did not proceed to full investigations, the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services has investigated the claims and is understood to be close to finalising a report to determine if there is any substance to the three main allegations.

Dr Gurry, 64, said in an email response to the Financial Review last week that he welcomed accountability and good governance, and was confident of the outcome.

"There are many blatant falsehoods, which are quite easily refuted, and so they will be in the proper forum in the proper time," he said.

Globally-renowned IP expert
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, just weeks into her new job after the election in 2013, publicly supported Dr Gurry's re-election as WIPO chief when the allegations were hanging over his head. Cambridge-educated Dr Gurry is a globally-renowned IP expert from Melbourne with more than 30 years experience.

Ms Bishop's spokeswoman said it supported Dr Gurry's candidacy for WIPO director general based on his "accomplished record".

"Australia continues to support the United Nations investigation running its course without pre-judging outcomes," she said. "Australia's interest remains in seeing this matter resolved in a proper and timely fashion."

Upon hearing the testimony of witnesses at a specially convened Congress hearing last week, US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called on the Obama administration to use its influence to remove Dr Gurry from office.

The ranking Democrat member for the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Brad Sherman, said WIPO seemed like the "FIFA of UN agencies" for buying off small countries.

Mr Sherman proposed a resolution demanding an audit and disclosure of the UN's investigative report. He said Dr Gurry should resign, in an unprecedented tirade against Australia.

"Should we explicitly criticise the government of Australia for sticking with this person?" Mr Sherman asked.

"Whether it is negligence from the foreign ministry of Australia or gross negligence is something the resolution could ask the Australians to tell us."

"They're responsible for North Korea and Iran having this technology."

About five years ago, Dr Gurry authorised an American-made HP server worth $US7845, a HP master printer and other IT equipment to be sent to North Korea to expand WIPO offices, following his election as director-general.

Ms Brown, formerly Dr Gurry's strategic adviser, testified to Congress that WIPO staff had told her the shipment to the blacklisted state was "in exchange for supporting Mr Gurry's election."

He won the secret ballot 42-41.

Dr Gurry has maintained that WIPO did not breach UN Security Council resolutions and was not bound by US trade sanctions, which forbid certain technology being sent to North Korea because of concerns about the state's nuclear program.

Written legal advice sent by the UN Security Council to Dr Gurry in September 2012, stating that its resolutions did not prohibit WIPO's technical assistance program to North Korea.

US Congress representatives are furious that US-manufactured equipment was dispatched to the rogue state. WIPO is not governed by US domestic law.

Former Australian ambassador Kim Beazley wrote to Congress in 2013, describing the items sent to North Korea, and Iran, as "standard office equipment".

A US State Department official said on Friday it "strongly supports" the UN investigation into whistleblower allegations of misconduct at WIPO.

The US official urged the WIPO General Assembly chair, Colombian ambassador Gabriel Duque, to review the UN report and inform member states of the findings after it is finalised.

Australian diplomats in past years have privately lobbied the US not to speak out disloyally against a close bilateral ally on the Gurry matter, sources said.

The US government has withheld 15 per cent of its funding for WIPO because it had not met US whistleblower protections.

Ms Brown alleged Dr Gurry retaliated against her after she reported him, and that she was forced to take stress leave before eventually resigning.

"I believe that my government, the Australian government, has been seriously misled by Mr Gurry," Ms Brown said.

Dr Gurry has occasionally clashed with the US on IP rules, including with the powerful Silicon Valley technology sector in California, where Congressman Sherman and Mr Pooley, an IP lawyer, hail from.