Rep. Charles Rangel is having an unpleasant season, convicted on Tuesday by a House panel on 11 counts of ethics violations — including failure to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets.
Rangel would have done far better to work for the United Nations. For UN senior staff members, as long as they don’t get carried away and attempt an act of genuine transparency, it is virtually impossible to fail to properly disclose their personal financial assets to the public. That’s not because they are all paragons of disclosure. The reason they can hardly fail is that the UN has redefined the procedure of “public disclosure” to mean that UN officials do not need to disclose to the public anything whatsoever. This is the twisted product of the 2006 “reforms,” in which the Oil-for-Food-tainted UN promised greater transparency.
In the U.S. House, as the Rangel case reminds us, the requirements of disclosure involve enough detail so you can check out — with names and addresses attached — such information as, say, how much Rep. Nancy Pelosi says she made in rental income, or in Miscrosoft dividends. If you want to play around with this yourself, just type in the name of your favorite representative in the search space on this web page for the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives.
But at the UN, UN senior officials — unlike Rep. Charlie Rangel and his colleagues — get a choice. Collectively, they are entrusted with handling billions of U.S. tax dollars (the U.S. chips in more than $6 billion per year, bankrolling roughly one-quarter of the UN’s system-wide budget), and they serve in high positions of global, public trust. But when it comes to disclosing their personal finances to the public, UN senior officials may, at their own discretion, opt out entirely and have the UN release zilch. Or — I’m not making this up — they can allow the release of a one-page form on which they check a box to disclose only that they don’t want to disclose anything (for instance, check out the 2009 “public disclosure” form of one of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s special envoys for climate change, Ricardo Lagos Escobar).