On Wednesday, February 24th, a hearing of joint subcommittees from the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs discussed allegations of ethical issues which have been levied against Francis Gurry, the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The hearing, entitled Establishing Accountability at the World Intellectual Property Organization: Illicit Technology Transfers, Whistleblowing and Reform, was chaired by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and included testimony from former staff members of WIPO who alleged that they were victims of whistleblower retaliation; Gurry declined to respond to an invitation to attend the hearing.
The situation surrounding Francis Gurry led to calls in 2015 by WIPO General Assemblies chair Paivi Kairamo to initiate an investigation into Gurry’s professional activities by the Office of Internal Oversight Service (OIOS), the UN’s internal watchdog agency. This investigation came a year after Gurry was appointed to a second six-year term as WIPO’s Director General in May 2014. Previous reports published on IPWatchdog related to Gurry’s alleged ethical lapses have prompted legal threats from WIPO counsel.
James Pooley, the former Deputy Director of WIPO from 2009 to 2014, led his testimony with three concrete examples of reckless decisions made by Gurry which constituted ethical abuses, although he indicated that this list was by no means exhaustive. First, Pooley testified that in March 2012, he became aware of a WIPO payment halted by the Bank of America. The international payment was for the procurement and shipment of high-end computing equipment, much of it made by Hewlett-Packard, to North Korea. The shipment also included firewall equipment manufactured by Silicon Valley-based SonicWall and a 24-terabyte disc array; the total shipment cost more than $25,000 according to details provided by Pooley under questioning. “I knew it needed approval and the firewall was only to keep North Koreans from accessing the Internet,” Pooley said. Pooley approached Gurry about the transaction, noting that the shipment ran afoul of U.S. sanctions against North Korea and had been made without approval from member states. “[Gurry] basically said that I should shut up, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that he didn’t care what the U.S. thought, because WIPO was an independent agency of the UN and wasn’t required to follow U.S. law,” Pooley’s written testimony claims. Pooley also testified that Gurry spent $193,500 on a Washington-area law firm hired to avoid an investigation into the North Korea shipments launched by the House foreign affairs committee.
Gurry’s actions on opening satellite offices in China and Russia were also discussed at the hearing as further examples of the WIPO director’s poor governance. Pooley learned about a project to open WIPO satellite offices in those countries which Gurry had kept secret; Pooley and other staff members only learned about the new offices because of newspaper reports from either country. To manage WIPO’s organizational risks in opening these offices, Pooley put together a risk analysis team and he alleged that Gurry ordered him to desist that work in early 2013. Pooley also testified that he later learned these offices were opened to fulfill promises made to foreign governments ahead of Gurry’s first appointment as WIPO’s Director General.
Pooley alleges that he became the target of much retaliation from Gurry after the former WIPO Deputy Director learned that Gurry had likely interfered with an external competitive procurement process for a major IT contract. In his testimony, Pooley states that another WIPO colleague had informed him that Gurry awarded the contract to a bid from an Australian company run by a personal friend of Gurry’s; that bid was 40 percent higher than other bids collected during the process. Pooley reported the impropriety of this decision to WIPO’s governing committees in April 2014.
Pooley also explained at the hearing that after an official complaint he had filed with WIPO became public, Gurry prompted WIPO counsel to threaten legal action against Pooley and “a U.S. journalist [who] had posted article about my complaint, along with a copy of it.” Although not mentioned at the hearing by name, that U.S. journalist is IPWatchdog.com founder and Editor, Gene Quinn. In April 2014, after having hip replacement surgery and while still on pain medication, Quinn was threatened with both civil and criminal proceedings by WIPO Attorney Edward Kwakwa, presumably at the behest of Gurry. Not in a position at the time to push back due to his health and recovery from surgery, Quinn gave into the threats and removed the Pooley complaint. For those interested, the Pooley complaint can be found online here.
Despite the U.S. State Department being made aware of serious accusations made against Gurry, who is the senior Australian national serving at the UN, the U.S. did not obstruct Gurry’s reinstatement as WIPO Director General in 2014. Letters signed in 2013 by 12 Members of Congress asked Secretary of State John Kerry to support an alternative candidate during the 2014 WIPO Director General election, citing the North Korea computer shipments, the impropriety behind opening satellite offices in China and Russia and the collection of personal items from WIPO employees for alleged DNA collection purposes. A response to the letter came not from the State Department but from Kim Beazley, then Australia’s Ambassador to the U.S., denying Gurry’s involvement in the DNA collection and calling the allegations “old claims,” according to testimony. “We can accept that countries act in their own national interest but we cannot accept that the U.S. stand down while its national interests are being ignored, especially transparency and good governance,” Pooley said. Pooley acknowledged that the State Department faces unique geopolitical concerns. It may be worth noting that the U.S. and Australia have recently discussed the creation of an American naval base in Australia to increase American influence in the South Pacific and close to the Indian Ocean, regions of growing strategic importance globally.
Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of Pooley’s testimony surrounds Avard Bishop, WIPO’s former chief ethics officer. Pooley testified that a week before filing his April 2014 complaint, Bishop confided his personal stress over “continuing to do what he thought was an impossible job” knowing that complaints made about Gurry would never be fully investigated. Three months later, Bishop committed suicide; Pooley’s testimony indicates that his death came within a week of Bishop being asked to leave WIPO. “Orders were immediately issued to secure his office, and even his widow was denied access to his emails,” Pooley’s testimony reads. “I am not aware of any investigation into these events.”
More claims of personal retaliation by Gurry against members of WIPO staff came during testimony offered by Miranda Brown, an Australian government official and the former strategic advisor to Gurry at WIPO beginning in July 2011. Brown was one of the first WIPO staff members to learn about the North Korean computer shipment, receiving a phone call on March 14th, 2012, from a member of WIPO’s procurement staff about the blocked Bank of America payment. Brown alleged that she advised Gurry against the project and he responded that North Korea is a WIPO member state like any other and that WIPO wasn’t bound by sanctions from either the U.S. or the UN Security Council. Instead, “he told me to go fix the payment problem,” Brown testified. Brown would later learn that the computer equipment had indeed been shipped to Pyongyang and that the shipment was a request from the North Korean government in exchange for supporting Gurry’s re-election as WIPO Director General, an election that Gurry won by one vote according to Brown’s statement. Her testimony also speaks about a similar shipment of computing equipment to Iran. Multiple times during the hearing, it was noted that much of WIPO’s funds come from fees paid by inventors filing patents at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, indicating that at least some of Gurry’s personal political gains were financed by funds received from American innovators.
Brown cooperated with the investigation launched by the House foreign affairs committee into the North Korea shipment by forwarding relevant documents. She alleged that Gurry retaliated by accusing her of leaking documents to the U.S., offering her a plea bargain exonerating her from investigation if she named the other staff members with which she shared relevant documents. Brown avoided signing the plea bargain by going on extended medical leave. When she returned to WIPO in September 2012, Gurry allegedly ordered Brown to work secretly on the project to establish the WIPO satellite offices in Beijing and Moscow. After she again informed officials at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, after which time she alleges that Gurry increased his retaliation, which included her removal from the senior management team and directives from Gurry that WIPO staff should avoid Brown or face “consequences,” according to testimony. After Gurry didn’t renew Brown’s contract in November 2012, Brown decided to take a position with lower pay and responsibilities at a different UN agency rather than wait for the three years that it would likely take for her complaint to be litigated through the International Labour Organization’s Administrative Tribunal before she would be granted a hearing. During questioning, Brown noted that whistleblower support at the UN was especially poor when the wrongdoing involves an agency head, such as Gurry, as the complaint is directly reported to the agency head who can find mechanisms of delaying or avoiding investigation. “Dickens gave us some very good descriptions of this in Bleak House,” Pooley said. “You’ll find it repeated and worse at WIPO.”
Brown’s testimony spoke to retaliation against former WIPO senior copyright staff member Moncef Kateb, who also served as the president of WIPO Staff Council. Kateb, an Algerian national, was another early whistleblower on the North Korean computer shipment. Gurry fired Kateb in September 2014 in a move that instantly provoked an angry response from a trio of unions representing UN staff members. Brown also testified on DNA collection practices which Gurry is alleged to have undertaken as far back as 2007, before his first election as WIPO Director General, including the secret seizure of personal items from three WIPO staff members which Gurry apparently believed were the source of anonymous letters accusing him of impropriety.
The third witness at the House foreign affairs subcommittee hearing was Matthew Parish, legal counsel to WIPO Staff Council. He testified on behalf of WIPO Staff Council members, who are prohibited by the Director General from providing testimony on issues related to whistleblowing or wrongdoing. “It is not an exaggeration to say that members of the Staff Council live in daily fear for their jobs and their careers,” Parish’s statement reads. “WIPO seems to have set a new low when it comes to accountability and management of its affairs.” Parish also spoke to secret raids ordered by Gurry to obtain personal effects from staff members for the collection of DNA as well as Gurry’s actions in dismantling a disciplinary regime in place at WIPO, which allowed him to fire Kateb. During questioning, Parish called Gurry’s belief that WIPO wasn’t beholden to UN sanctions on North Korea “completely absurd.”
At various points throughout the hearing, the trio of witnesses were lauded by members of Congress for their courage in pointing out abuses at WIPO despite the retaliations that had been suffered. Congressman Smith expressed surprise that the Australian government would protect someone whose leadership has proven to be so detrimental. “If you have a bad apple, you expunge the bad apple,” Smith said, adding that their support of Gurry hurts the Australian government’s reputation. In response, Brown, an Australian government official herself, mentioned that she believed that the Australian government has been misled by Gurry in regards to the ethics issues. Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) was more damning of WIPO, calling it the “FIFA of UN agencies.”
Multiple witnesses testified that OIOS reportedly launched an investigation into Gurry’s activities as WIPO Director General and that a report on the concluded investigation had been sent to Gabriel Duque, chair of the WIPO General Assemblies. Parish noted that Congressional action to release the OIOS report, which hasn’t been made publicly available despite many requests. “Everyone’s asking for the report, no one has seen it,” Parish said. “I cannot see any legal reason for holding it back.”
Many recommendations were made to the subcommittee members in attendance as to what Congress can do to take action in addressing corruption concerns at WIPO. Pooley advised that a different standard to traditional diplomatic immunities enjoyed by high-ranking UN officials could help keep abusive officials more accountable. External modes of arbitration for staff complaints were another possibility mentioned, as well as increasing the cut of patent fees that the U.S. wouldn’t send to WIPO from 15 percent up to 100 percent, effectively eliminating any American funding for the agency. Official resolutions criticizing the Australian government were also discussed, although Congressman Sherman noted that the criticism could be rescinded if the Australian government asks for Gurry’s resignation prior to any resolution passing Congress.
Despite the acknowledgment on behalf of multiple committee members that America and Australia enjoy close ties as allies, there was real interest on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee to send a strong message to the Australian government on this issue. “Friends don’t let friends commit human rights abuses,” Congressman Smith said.
Pooley said that the outcome of this case was a focus for many others in the UN system. Depending on the what happens, “you may be looking at the last UN whistleblowers to ever come forward,” Pooley said.