The United States and other global powers on Thursday elected Francis Gurry, an Australian national, to a second six-year term as the director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an influential United Nations agency charged with protecting patents around the world.
Gurry might want to wait to pop the cork off the champagne bottle.
The U.S. State Department is seeking to rally support for an independent investigation of Gurry, who has been dogged by numerous allegations of misconduct and mismanagement from current and former senior advisors. U.S. diplomats — who resisted calls from Gurry’s critics to postpone the election until an investigation was complete — offered up congratulations to the Australian civil servant, while making it clear he would have to submit to an investigation. South Korea made an explicit request for an independent inquiry.
The move comes less than two months after one of the agency’s deputy director generals, James Pooley, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who serves as the organization’s top American official, filed a complaint accusing Gurry of engaging in multiple acts of “serious misconduct,” including improperly steering a lucrative contract to an acquaintance. Gurry has denied the allegations in the past and declined to comment Thursday, May 8.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy: “We are aware of complaints made by Mr. Pooley, a senior WIPO official, and believe such complaints must be treated seriously and transparently. In that regard, the United States believes that a full, independent, and external investigation of all complaints is warranted and is in consultation with other member states towards that end.”
The episode places two close military and intelligence allies at odds over the fate of Australia’s most senior U.N. official. It also poses a test to Washington’s commitment to good governance and accountability in the U.N. system. In addition to his WIPO post, Gurry was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012 to chair the High-Level Committee on Management, which is responsible for addressing the day-to-day operations of the U.N. system. “The United States is deeply committed to transparency and accountability in WIPO as in all international organizations, including whistleblower protections,” the State Department official said.
In his acceptance speech Thursday in Geneva, Gurry underscored the depths of Canberra’s support for his candidacy, specifically crediting Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb for leading the re-election campaign on his behalf. “I would like to thank all the member states for their confidence and trust,” he said. “Throughout my first term, ambassadors and their colleagues have been extremely generous with their time and availability, very indulgent of my failings and shortcomings, and always willing to engage and to assist in overcoming difficulties.”
Indeed, Gurry’s tenure has been marked by controversy. The Australian civil servant, as detailed by Fox News, has angered Republican and Democratic members of Congress by selling computers and other high-tech equipment to North Korea and Iran without notifying the U.N. and opening new WIPO offices in Russia and China unilaterally.
More serious allegations of outright misconduct have swirled around him since October 2007, when anonymous sources who said they were part of a self-styled organization called the Watchdog for International Civil Service sent copies of three letters — each addressed to Gurry — to several senior WIPO officials, claiming to have obtained evidence of criminal wrongdoing on Gurry’s part.
“We have a lot of information on you and your activities,” according to one of the letters, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. In response, Gurry — then WIPO’s deputy director general and a leading candidate to head the organization — filed a criminal defamation complaint with police in Geneva, where he was living.
In the course of the investigation, Carlotta Graffigna, a high-ranking WIPO staffer and early suspect, claimed that WIPO security officers secretly collected three items — “a stapler, a box of cigarettes and a box of candies” — from her office and illegally turned them over to the Swiss police, which subjected them to DNA testing, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy. WIPO security officers, she claimed in a Sept. 26, 2010, letter to WIPO’s ethics office, also supplied Swiss police with stolen personal items — including dental floss, lipstick, and adhesive tape — from two other WIPO workers. At the time the objects were transferred to the Swiss police, all three WIPO employers enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Suspicion turned to Gurry, who, according to WIPO critics, had the most to gain because he had initiated the Swiss investigation in an attempt to clear his own name and identify his detractors.
For a while, the case largely blew over, and Graffigna reached a settlement with WIPO that required her not to discuss the matter. But it has never disappeared.
Miranda Brown, a former Australian diplomat who served as Gurry’s strategic advisor, resigned from her job in November 2012, saying “I would have preferred to stay and do my job at WIPO; however, for reasons that need not be recited here, you have made that impossible.”
Before she left, she requested an “investigation into the DNA theft and several other alleged misconduct by the Director General.” But WIPO’s internal watchdog, the Internal Audit and Oversight Division, declined to carry out an investigation. Brown has since filed a complaint with the International Labor Office Administrative Tribunal, saying WIPO’s internal auditors lacked the independence needed to investigate the organization’s leader. “The decision not to investigate was wrong,” according to her complaint. “The facts underlying the request are compelling, and no reasonable person could have concluded that there was insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation.”
In late 2013, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) raised concern about Gurry’s leadership in a series of letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Australia’s ambassador to the United States. Her concerns included what she claimed was WIPO’s sale through a Chinese middleman of “high-end computers” to North Korea and Iran. Gurry, she noted, has dismissed American concerns on the grounds that WIPO “is not bound by the U.S. national law in this matter” even though an independent review commissioned by WIPO concluded: “we simply cannot fathom how WIPO could have convinced itself that most Member States would support the delivery of equipment to countries whose behavior was so egregious it forced the international community to impose embargoes, and where the deliveries, if initiated by the recipient countries, would violate a Member State’s national laws.”
But Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, dismissed the allegations against Gurry, saying that WIPO had only provided North Korea and Iran with “standard office equipment, including workstations, laptops, printers, scanners with software designed to aid the implementation of WIPO programs and regulations.” He also dismissed the other claims against Gurry as unfounded. “The notion that Dr. Gurry is involved in a scheme to illegally acquire DNA samples from WIPO employees is deeply alarming. Fortunately it isn’t true,” Beazley wrote in a Nov. 26, 2013, letter to Lofgren. “These are old claims with no new evidence attached to them. Events have been distorted, exaggerated, misrepresented and misconstrued to undermine Dr. Gurry’s campaign. I think you can see Australia’s confidence that there is no ‘evidence of criminal wrongdoing’ is soundly based.”
Shortly after Gurry won re-election, Pooley came forward. In his April 2 complaint, which was first reported by Fox News, Pooley wrote: “I write to report what I believe is serious misconduct by WIPO’s Director General, Francis Gurry. Specifically, I draw your attention to (1) the taking of DNA from senior WIPO staff members without their knowledge or consent, in violation of fundamental human rights, as well as efforts to suppress evidence … (2) evidence of the corruption of a recent procurement that was redirected and awarded to an Australian company led by an acquaintance of Mr. Gurry, even though that company had not been selected in the competitive process.”
Mark O’Brien, a lawyer for the Australian company, wrote in a letter to WIPO member states that the allegations “are totally baseless” and “grossly defamatory.” The president of the company, it said, “has dealt with Mr. Gurry on very infrequent occasions in the course of policy negotiations. The report appears to base the allegation of friendship on the preposterous premise that both men are Australian.”
But allegations have continued. On the eve of Gurry’s re-election, one of Pooley’s predecessors, an American businessman named Michael Keplinger, proposed postponing the election until Pooley’s allegations had been fully investigated. “Although I was not aware during my tenure of much of the information that’s documented in the report, I can assure you that Mr. Pooley’s analysis of Mr. Gurry’s conduct and motivations regarding the DNA affair is consistent with what I experienced of his behavior during the time I reported to him at WIPO,” Keplinger wrote in a letter to key WIPO governments. “My purpose in writing is to urge you to commission an immediate investigation as suggested by Mr. Pooley. I cannot imagine that the member states can decide on extending Mr. Gurry’s mandate without having the benefit of an independent investigation into what appears to be a very troubling record.”