Patent scandal: UN asked to investigate top official


Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization Francis Gurry. (WIPO/Berrod Emmanuel)

EXCLUSIVE: Investigators with the United Nations Secretariat in New York have been asked to look into longstanding charges that Francis Gurry, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, ordered break-ins of the offices of his own staffers in 2008 to seek DNA evidence that they wrote anonymous letters against him.

The top official of WIPO — a U.N. body that is charged with safeguarding and allowing access to the world’s patent system — has long denied the charges as being “without foundation.” Questions to Gurry from Fox News regarding the probe and the accusations had not been answered by the time this story was published.

The request for the probe by the U.N.’s internal watchdog, the Organization of Internal Oversight Services, came from Päivi Kairamo, Chair of WIPO’s General Assemblies, the policy-making body which represents the 188 nations that are WIPO members, and thus has significant weight in the U.N. system.

Kairamo did not reply to questions from Fox News regarding the probe before this story was published.

The possibility of an OIOS investigation adds a further bizarre chapter in the ongoing leadership crisis at WIPO, which has been pondering the charges against Gurry, first made by the director general’s own subordinates, for a seeming eternity without doing much about them.

Indeed, Gurry was elected to a second six-year term as WIPO’s director general almost exactly a year ago, despite the accusations against him.

The possibility of an OIOS investigation adds a further bizarre chapter in the ongoing leadership crisis at WIPO.

Whether, or how, OIOS will actually take up the challenge is another issue. WIPO, on paper, anyway, has its own internal investigation system — but one that reports in part to Gurry and is currently without a permanent head due to accusations about its own internal conflicts of interest

The notion that outside intervention of some kind is necessary at WIPO underlines the importance of the agency, an obscure, Geneva-based organization that serves as the gatekeeper for international protection of, and access to, the huge trove of largely Western-originated patents and other forms of intellectual property that are the centerpiece of the 21st century economy.

The U.S. is by far the largest contributor to the patent storehouse that WIPO grants access to in the rest of the world.

A U.S. official responded to questions from Fox New by hailing Kairamo’s request to the OIOS, saying that “we are pleased to see this development and hope that the OIOS investigation process can move forward swiftly.”

“We believe there should be an independent, transparent, credible, and timely investigation into the allegations,” the official said, adding that “we do not take a position” on their merits.

According to the U.N., WIPO is indeed a disturbing place to be the international depository for those treasures. In a study done by U.N. administrative experts last April, WIPO was cited for failing to have the oversight mechanisms of other U.N. agencies, spending more on its rapidly growing bureaucracy than on many of its goals, and keeping member states that supposedly control it in the dark about its top officers’ meetings.

The study also noted that those officials, led by Gurry, were “placed in a position to take the leading role on numerous issues without a formal input from member states.”

Among those issues was a Gurry decision in 2012 to transfer sensitive computer technology to North Korea and Iran without notifying the U.N., which maintains sanctions against the regimes for their illegal nuclear weapons programs.

An independent investigators’ report said while the shipments did not violate international law (largely due to the porousness of the legal sanctions regime), they were “unjustified” and something “we simply cannot fathom.”

Another such “issue” was a pair of 2013 Gurry decisions to open new WIPO offices in Russia and China without member-states’ knowledge or approval.

The charges that Gurry may have been involved in actual wrongdoing have festered even longer, but burst out anew just before his re-election last year. One of his top deputies, James Pooley, filed an official “Report of Misconduct” against Gurry for having a role in the alleged 2007 break-ins — at the time Gurry was WIPO’s No. 2 — as well as another conflict of interest involving WIPO procurement.

Pooley asked WIPO member states — including the U.S. — to “demand immediate answers and explanations from Mr. Gurry about the charges and suspend him from duty pending an independent investigation if he failed to comply.”

Pooley, a U.S. patent attorney who was the highest-ranked American at WIPO, argued there was considerable evidence Gurry had directed security officers to break into selected staff offices to get the DNA samples, in a bid to root out anonymous detractors who had written letters making vague charges of financial impropriety against him and his wife.

The WIPO staffers were cleared after their diplomatic immunity was temporarily lifted and Swiss police made DNA tests. The staffers discovered evidence of the illegal break-ins in the testing paperwork.

Pooley charged that since the break-in, Gurry has been involved in actively covering up the case, and in retaliating against those who have raised charges against him. Pooley has since left WIPO, as have other staffers involved in the initial charges.

In his reply yesterday to Fox News questions, the U.S. official said that “we are aware of complaints filed last year by a former WIPO official [Pooley], and believe those complaints must be evaluated seriously and transparently.”

Ever since Pooley and others raised them, however, the charges have fallen into familiar U.N. procedural swamplands that include conflict of interest accusations within WIPO’s internal investigation division, and accusations of retaliation against other WIPO whistleblowers, even after they have moved on to different U.N. organizations.

One of those whistleblowers, Miranda Brown, formerly a strategic adviser to Gurry, resigned in 2012, charging that Gurry had made her work “impossible.” Brown, like Gurry an Australian, took a lower-ranked job at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNOHCHR). Before she left, she also filed a request for an investigation of Gurry that included the DNA issue.

In February 2014, Brown brought her complaint against Gurry to another U.N. administrative tribunal, over the lack of investigation by WIPO of her charges, arguing that her resignation from WIPO was “forced,” and demanding an “independent investigation into these disturbing circumstances.” That tribunal is unlikely to decide on Brown’s complaint until next year.

Brown charged last November that retaliation for her whistle-blowing against Gurry continued in her new job, when she was told that her two-year staff contract with UNOHCHR would expire without a renewal and the only subsequent post she was offered was in far-away Fiji.

(Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s press spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, pooh-poohed the notion last week at a press conference and declared that “no equivalent post was available then, nor is available now, in Geneva.”)

Brown has claimed, among other things, that the person filling her Geneva slot had been assigned to the Fiji job that had suddenly become vacant, and had told colleagues as recently as last November that she was looking forward to another year in Fiji.

Questions to Dujarric from Fox News about the new OIOS probe of Gurry had not been answered before this article was published.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Russell