When the investigators burst in, John O’Brien was working quietly at his desk. Young and serious-looking, the pair had unannounced arrived at John O’Brien’s 6th floor office, a skyscraper made of steel-and glass that overlooks downtown Istanbul.
Having burnished a reputation as a fearless whistleblower — with a mission to root out corruption in the climate change projects he oversees for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) — O’Brien assumed the pair had come to interview him about his exposure of a £3 million green energy scam in Russia.
However, the April 2018 sleuths came to investigate a different motive. The sleuths had arrived from New York in order to investigate allegations of sexual impropriety. He was convicted.
Bombarded with questions and ordered to hand over his work phone and laptop, O’Brien — the grandson of a distinguished RAF wing-commander who trained pilots to fight in the Battle of Britain — was left ‘trembling with shock’ according to a witness
O’Brien was told three witnesses had contacted the UNDP’s Office of Audit and Investigation claiming to have seen him scroll through images of women ‘in several stages of undress’ during an international energy workshop in Paris a month earlier.
One witness claimed O’Brien had also used WhatsApp to arrange a meeting in his hotel, and by ‘intuition’ suspected he had made a tryst with a prostitute.
Bombarded with questions and ordered to hand over his work phone and laptop, O’Brien — the grandson of a distinguished RAF wing-commander who trained pilots to fight in the Battle of Britain — was left ‘trembling with shock’ according to a witness.
UNDP’s 52-year old technical advisor on climate change mitigation for projects in the former Eastern Bloc states that he didn’t look at any of these sexy photos, let alone book a sex sess.
He thinks he was set up to dishonor his reporting of fraudulent green projects.
But this story isn’t only about one man’s anti-corruption crusade and his quest to clear his name, intriguing as that may be.
It has a much wider reach and is more significant.
World leaders may have departed the stage in Glasgow, but Cop26, the United Nation’s 2021 Climate Change Conference continues, with delegates deep in negotiation and wrangling over the small print of the various agreements to reduce climate change.
However, O’Brien’s case highlights a problem over which the UN usually draws a discreet veil: the corruption and mismanagement that pervades many hugely expensive climate change projects.
Since poorer nations can’t afford to make the wholesale industrial and domestic changes required to reduce carbon emissions, the West has little choice but to pay them huge sums to do so.
Boris Johnson has promised to double the UK’s contribution to such global initiatives to £11.6 bn over the next five years.
Included in this vast sum is the £62.3 million we have pledged to give, between 2018 and 2022, to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) that was established following the Rio Earth Summit 30 years ago. We also donate generously to the Green Climate Fund, which has allocated £212 million for UNDP climate initiatives since 2017.
Corruption and climate change. These words seem to have a vast disconnect. Yet in truth ‘there is a lot of overlap’, as Brice Böhmer, head of climate governance integrity for the anti-corruption group Transparency International, remarked recently in the Financial Times.
Responding to allegations of widespread misuse of funds, the UNDP told the Mail this affected only ‘a fraction’ of projects: 1.4 pc. With a $5 billion annual portfolio, UNDP claims that fraud took away just more than $500,000
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office insists the UK Government has a ‘zero tolerance policy on fraud and corruption’ and regularly reviews partner organisations (such as the UNDP) ‘to identify and manage risks’.
If we believe whistleblowers such as John O’Brien, however, the reality is very different.
Since taking up his post in 2009, he has raised suspicions of corruption and waste in at least ten projects, in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, where a biomass energy scheme promising to plant a huge sustainable forest and use the wooden pellets to replace fossil fuels produced just ‘a few rotting willow trees’, according to our sources.
Although some of his claims are under investigation, it is believed that only Russia has been contacted.
O’Brien is not permitted to speak to the Press, but insiders say he is utterly convinced ‘many millions’ in climate change funds are disappearing down ‘a huge black hole’, and that the problem extends beyond Eastern Europe, to countries in Africa and South America. Yet sources say what angers O’Brien most is the ‘ostrich-like’ attitude of bosses he accuses of failing to monitor or investigate reports of misappropriation.
He isn’t the only one with similar concerns: almost a dozen ex-employees, auditors, and consultants raised similar issues over the last decade.
This week, I spoke to an East European project manager for the UNDP, who told me that he was ‘beaten up’ for daring to report corruption within a £500,000 climate change project.
The scheme promised to stage hundreds of seminars across the country to promote the use of energy-saving boilers, but he claims it turned out to be ‘one big fairy tale’. He claims that many of these events were never held.
This same man also reported his suspicion that the cost of an advertising campaign promoting the replacement of energy-draining light bulbs with greener ones had been deliberately over-inflated by ‘a couple of hundred thousand’.
‘People know . . . they won’t be punished even if they’re caught, because the UNDP has no teeth,’ he said. ‘It’s depressing. UN organisations should be role models for the rest of the world.’ For a long time, the fact climate change projects could be a blank cheque for these eco-charlatans remained largely unknown.
Dmitry Ershov was the ex-UNDP project manager for a Russian program called Standards and Labels for Promoting Energy Efficiency. This was one of the green energy rackets uncovered by John O’Brien and other whistleblowers.
O’Brien is not permitted to speak to the Press, but insiders say he is utterly convinced ‘many millions’ in climate change funds are disappearing down ‘a huge black hole’, and that the problem extends beyond Eastern Europe, to countries in Africa and South America
Ershov left when his contract in 2014 was terminated. He was one of the first people to voice concern about money being misappropriated.
Still simmering over his belief that millions were being squandered on this dubious enterprise, which enriched a nepotistic cabal of his compatriots, four years later Ershov posted an impassioned YouTube video, imploring: ‘Donors, please don’t let the UNDP get away with stealing your money and covering it up for years and years!’
It was brave to make such a bold move in a country where the threat of attacking the powerful and rich is real.
Standards and Labels promised to shrink Russia’s carbon footprint by encouraging millions of citizens to swap outdated, polluting household appliances for new, clean models.
But surely, alarms should have been sounded right from the beginning? First, Alexei Antropov (its director) was a top figure in Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science. He has no connection to energy efficiency.
Antropov claimed that he has given contracts and jobs to friends and relatives who have little to no experience in the field of energy-saving.
Alerted to allegations of corruption by several consultants on the project, John O’Brien continued to report his concerns over Standards and Labels until the project was closed down in 2017.
That same year, two consultants produced a damning report, stating there were ‘strong indicators of deliberate misappropriation’. They found some £3 million — roughly half its UNDP funding — had been spent ‘with no useful outputs’, and that it ‘did not achieve any greenhouse gas emission reductions’.
One of the report’s authors, Alexei Zhakarov, told me how hundreds of thousands had been paid to the Standards and Labels project to ‘research’ information that was already available in public documents. Zhakarov claims that equipment cost millions more than it was needed.
He said of the project: ‘It was useless and it stank.’
These findings finally compelled the UNDP’s Office of Audit and Investigations to launch an inquiry — yet amazingly, as late as May 2018, it deemed that ‘allegations of procurement fraud were not substantiated’.
It was only after ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine published a coruscating investigation into UNDP climate change corruption that 12 donor nations, including the U.S, Australia, Japan and France, insisted on a full independent review. The Netherlands became so worried that one third of the 30 million euros it had funded was frozen.
UNDP commissioned this review. This concluded that ‘a number of individuals’ were ‘able to game the relatively weak systems of governance’.
The UNDP admits that Russia is the root of the problem, albeit late.
In December 2020 yet another report, by its own auditors, found signs of ‘fraudulent activities’ at two of eight country offices it reviewed. The inspectors discovered 17 payment vouchers that were suspicious totaling $250,000. Seven of these payments were made to an independent consultant.
A payment was made for tree planting campaigns that appeared to be fraudulent. . . and ‘suspicious collusions’ among project managers’. One boss even hired his wife as a contract worker. So the embarrassing inventory kept going.
It is sometimes difficult to determine if the protagonists are crooked, or simply stupid.
UNDP’s audit highlighted one strange incident in which a dozen biomass boilers were purchased. The bosses of this project — apparently in Ukraine — paid $129,000 for each boiler, even though the standard price was half that amount, wasting $780,000 of taxpayers’ money in the process. This report does not mention that the money could have been embezzled rather than wasted.
Its conclusion was that management of the UNDP’s GEF portfolio was ‘partially satisfactory, with major improvements needed’. Earlier this year, the UK Government joined other donor nations in calling for these improvements to be made — and swiftly.
But last month, the UN’s flagship climate change organisation faced yet more damaging allegations when dozens of staff were emailed a bombshell, 72-page dossier headed ‘Broad Misconduct’.
Anonymously written and ‘based on information from multiple sources within UNDP’, it depicted a culture of ‘fraud, cover-up and retaliation’. There were several alleged perpetrators.
Whoever sent the email claimed to be doing so ‘with good intentions of protecting taxpayers’ money’ and demanded action.
It so concerned the UNDP’s executive co-ordinator and director of global environmental finance, Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, that he convened a staff video conference to address the matter.
The UN’s flagship climate change organisation faced yet more damaging allegations when dozens of staff were emailed a bombshell, 72-page dossier headed ‘Broad Misconduct’
Describing the allegations as ‘very, very serious’ and ‘upsetting’ — though stressing that they were unproven — he said they would be thoroughly investigated.
His remarks were echoed in the UNDP’s response to questions from the Mail.
A spokesman told me the organisation ‘takes allegations of wrongdoing extremely seriously [and] continuously works to minimise risks and apply lessons learned whenever we have not met standards we set’.
Where financial mismanagement was found, ‘rigorous’ efforts were made to resolve them through recovery of funds, disciplinary action and co-ordinated action with national authorities.
To oversee the Global Environment Facility portfolio, a new top management team was established in 2019.
It had introduced ‘a fresh culture of openness and transparency’, and those who reported wrongdoing would be protected from retaliation. All of which brings us back to whistleblower John O’Brien. This redoubtable British-New Zealand dual citizen really behaved in a reprehensible manner at the Paris conference.
Or rather, as an arch-whistleblower, did he fall victim to the very kind of ‘retaliation’ to which the anonymous dossier alludes?
The organisation refuses to comment on his case, but O’Brien has gone to great lengths to prove his innocence.
One witness told investigators he’d been seated behind O’Brien at the conference and secretly took photographs of him trawling through the lewd images.
However, O’Brien challenged this account by having the photos analysed by someone with knowledge of digitally altered images. In one picture, O’Brien’s thumb is mysteriously missing from the hand holding the phone.
Moreover, O’Brien claimed the images on his screen were so blurred it was impossible to tell what he is looking at. This appears to be the case based on what I’ve seen.
This week, I spoke to UNDP project manager Mish Hamid who recalls meeting O’Brien for coffee directly after the conference, then seeing him off to the airport. This casts doubt on the witness who ‘intuitively’ felt he had made a date with a call girl.
The “Fridays For Future”, youth climate movement, organizes a march through Glasgow to George Square, where youth activists from all walks of the city will speak.
However, after a year-long probe the Office of Audit and Investigation decided the allegations of ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘failure to comply with obligations’ had been substantiated.
O’Brien ‘did not meet the high standards of a UN official at such functions, but instead spent time looking at images that could . . . cause offence to other participants’, it states in an unpublished report, which I have seen.
Yet when this was submitted to the UN’s legal office for a review of disciplinary proceedings, O’Brien was ‘exonerated’ of misconduct.
Angelique Crumbly, a senior executive with the UNDP’s management services bureau, told O’Brien the decision had been taken ‘in light of the fact the witnesses wished to remain anonymous and ‘in the absence of corroborating evidence’.
However, four years later, the predicament of his Istanbul office is still not over.
The OAI opened a fresh investigation soon after his release. They are investigating yet other potentially disastrous accusations including a claim that he used money he had borrowed from a Ukrainian company he managed to purchase a London flat.
Sources say he denies this and doesn’t own any property there.
This has had a negative impact on his health and also led to him spending tens of thousands of dollars on legal services.
Less robust characters might have removed themselves from the firing line, but O’Brien refuses to resign because — as he tells colleagues — ‘that way the bad guys would win’.
Colleagues will gladly endorse his honesty, regardless of what transpired at that French conference. One described him as ‘straight as an arrow’, albeit ‘sometimes too honest for his own good’.
All of this comes at a time where British taxpayers are struggling to pay the costs of the pandemic and when many more millions are being pledged in Glasgow’s name, it begs the uncomfortable question.
With villains intent on hijacking the climate change gravy-train, how can we be sure our aid won’t heat-up their bank balances — leaving an ozone-style hole in the nation’s coffers?
Additional reporting by TIM STEWART