03 October 2016
by John Kehoe

US pressure on Malcolm Turnbull over WIPO's Francis Gurry

Francis Gurry

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was issued a letter on his visit to Washington two weeks ago from US Congressman Christopher Smith demanding the government stop defending the "bad acts" of Australia's most senior United Nations diplomat and protect whistleblowers who reported allegations against him.

Francis Gurry, the director general of the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation, has been probed by UN investigators and US congressional committees over three issues.

The government has stood by Dr Gurry, who heads the influential UN agency that rules on thousands of international patent and trademark applications, employs about 1300 people and has a budget of almost $1 billion.

Dr Gurry has been cleared of two allegations of wrongdoing, including the legality of WIPO gifting computer equipment to sanctioned Iran and North Korea in return for their votes to elect him director general.

However, a report by the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), released in late September, concluded Dr Gurry's intervention in a procurement to award a technology contract to a Sydney firm he knew the owner of may be "inconsistent with the standards expected".

The investigators recommended WIPO "consider taking appropriate action against him," according to a redacted copy of the report obtained.

After lobbying by Australian Ambassador in Geneva, Hamish McCormick, and infighting among UN members over how the matter should be dealt with, WIPO's co-chairmen from Columbia and Rwanda concluded there was "no justification for any disciplinary action".

Congressman Smith, chair of the House foreign affairs subcommittee on international organisations, on September 22 wrote to Mr Turnbull that he was concerned about "retaliation" against Dr Gurry's purported whistleblowers, two of whom are Australian.

"I ask that you personally look into this matter and, as I believe the situation warrants, to instruct your Mission in Geneva to cease opposing efforts to hold Mr Gurry accountable, as well as to support restitution to whistleblowers and transparency," the letter said.

Separately, he said Dr Gurry should be "fired".

Lei Wei, an Australian IT official who ran the procurement and filed a complaint against Dr Gurry, is worried about retaliation at WIPO after recently returning from leave, sources said.

Dr Gurry, a globally-renowned IP expert from Melbourne, intervened in a procurement for cyber hacking protection in 2013.

In Switzerland, he leaned on Mr Wei to include a Sydney firm after the original tender deadline closed.

The investigative report reveals Dr Gurry said the original potential bidders were "the most useless group" and he wanted the best expertise due to WIPO's exposure to attacks.

Upon belatedly entering, the Sydney firm quoted CHF120,000 ($161,000), above the CHF74,244 ($99,800) from a bidder Mr Lei had selected.

Dr Gurry insisted the selection criteria change to give 100 per cent weighting to technical capability and disregard price – "in non compliance of WIPO's procurement instructions", the investigative report said.

The firm of the Sydney consultant, who Dr Gurry had known for over a decade but was not friends with, was ultimately selected after it lowered the price to CHF100,000 ($134,000), equal to the maximum WIPO originally envisaged paying.

There is no suggestion the firm did anything wrong.Dr Gurry did not receive any personal benefit.

Dr Gurry did not respond to a request to comment. In an earlier letter to colleagues, Dr Gurry wrote the negative findings on the procurement were "plainly wrong" and "do not correspond to the facts or the evidence".

In earlier incidents probed by Congress, Dr Gurry's strategic adviser and Australian diplomat Miranda Brown and US WIPO deputy Jim Pooley, reported concerns to auditors about him transferring IT equipment to blacklisted North Korea and Iran.

At WIPO, Dr Gurry was not bound by US sanctions, but he upset American politicians by making the transfer.

Ms Brown and Mr Pooley also raised suspicions about Dr Gurry's possible involvement in ignoring diplomatic immunity and orchestrating the seizure of colleagues' personal items for forensic DNA analysis by police in 2008. Dr Gurry had been the victim of anonymous threatening letters and wanted to find the culprit.

The OIOS investigation found no evidence Dr Gurry was involved in taking the cigarette containers, lipstick, dental floss and staplers.

Swiss police refused to tell investigators who supplied them the items.

After raising claims against her boss, Ms Brown was told by Dr Gurry her contract would not be renewed and she resigned in late 2012.

The Australian government never sought Mr Lei's or Ms Brown's versions of events, though she has written numerous times to Foreign Affairs.

Ms Brown said she was "disappointed in the government's lack of support for the whistleblowers" and asked Canberra to demand restitution to her former WIPO role and to protect Mr Lei from retaliation.

"I trust that the government will do the right thing," she said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement Dr Gurry was unanimously re-elected as director general of WIPO in 2014 and an independent investigation had "no findings of misconduct".

"With the investigations now completed, we need to respect the outcome," she said.

A US State Department official said it was seeking a review of WIPO's whistleblower protection policy. "Having digested the OIOS investigation report's findings and consulted with numerous WIPO member states, the United States is actively pursuing procedural reforms at WIPO to rectify the shortcomings in the organisation's investigation process, internal oversight charter, and procurement process."

The issue has been an awkward test for US-Australia diplomatic relations. The State Department, under pressure from UN-sceptic Republicans in Congress, pushed for an investigation and for the report to be transparent, an effort Australia resisted.

Now the report has been tabled, the US government, though not some frustrated Republican and Democratic Congress members, seemingly agrees with Australia that Dr Gurry should not be punished.

Mexico's Ambassador in Geneva, Jorge Lomonaco, said it was "unhappy" about the repeated delays and the handling of the probe by the WIPO co-chairs, but was now "looking ahead".

"There has to be an improvement on the procedures and rules so that we improve procurement and transparency and accountability," he said.

The matter is on the agenda for the annual WIPO General Assembly this week.