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Top American official charges U.N. patent organization chief with 'serious violations of national and international law'

George Russell

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April 4, 2014

The top American official at the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization has accused its Director General, Francis Gurry, of “serious misconduct”  and “violations of national and international law” in connection with a bizarre series of alleged 2008 burglaries of staffers’ offices to obtain samples of their DNA.

The official, James Pooley, is one of Gurry’s four top deputies, and also a highly regarded U.S. patent lawyer, who was nominated for his WIPO job by the Obama Administration in 2009.

Pooley himself is head of the Innovation and Technology branch of WIPO, which administers the international Patent Cooperation Treaty, and which offers patent protection and garners tens of millions in fees annually for providing access to patents in 148 countries.

The accusations he has formally brought forward to WIPO’s member states are not new: they have been put forward by other former WIPO staffers in tribunals that consider internal U.N. justice matters, but no one of Pooley’s rank has done so.

Pooley, in a “Report of Misconduct,” filed Wednesday with the legislative branches of the Geneva-based organization known as WIPO and also sent to the U.S. Mission in Geneva, calls for WIPO’s  member states to “demand immediate answers and explanations from Mr. Gurry” about the charges, and suspend him from duty pending an independent investigation if he fails to comply.

Through his attorney, Pooley declined an interview request from Fox News, “on account of his duty of confidentiality as a staff member of WIPO.”

For his part, Gurry told Fox News, “The allegations are without foundation and I have no further comment.” But he has previously stated  that “I have not seen any allegation that is substantiated. Every single allegation is a repetition of a previous allegation that is being made.”

Pooley’s accusations, obtained by Fox News, are just the latest eruption of controversy at WIPO, a low-profile U.N. “specialized agency” that is 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. 

Few countries have a bigger stake in WIPO’s welfare than the U.S., which is by far the largest filer of international patents under the treaties administered by the organization.

Much of WIPO’s spate of controversy has had to do with the autocratic Gurry, an Australian who was recently re-selected by WIPO’s 83-nation Coordinating Committee for a second term starting in October. The decision must still be ratified by the 187 members of WIPOs General Assembly in May.

That ratification is still considered likely.

Gurry has already survived several fierce international storms in the past two years, mostly to do with his penchant for taking controversial actions without informing  the countries that make up WIPO’s membership.

In September, 2012, an investigative committee picked by Gurry himself found “inexplicable” and “unfathomable” a WIPO decision to provide sensitive U.S.-made computers and other high-tech equipment to North Korea and Iran as part of a renovation of WIPO facilities, without informing the U.N.’s committees that monitor sanctions against them. 

Gurry refused to let staffers, including his current accuser, testify before Congress about the WIPO actions.

Last October, another major fuss erupted when participants in WIPO’s annual assembly learned that he had agreed to open new offices in Russia and China without asking for approval. That kicked off an uproar as other countries demanded the same privilege, and the ten-day assembly closed without passing a biennial budget.

Pooley’s complaint, however, is focused on a tangled series of  actions that go back even further in WIPO’s convoluted history, prior to Gurry’s first election as Director General in March 2008.

A variety of evidence, Pooley argues, points toward the likelihood that Gurry, then WIPO’s de facto No. 2, directed security officers to break into the offices to obtain DNA samples from various small personal items of selected staffers as part of a secretive effort to find and root out some faceless opponents.

The samples were used by Swiss police to  check if any of the staffers were the authors of  a series of anonymous letters filled with vague charges of financial impropriety against  Gurry and his wife, which had appeared the previous October. 

At the time, Gurry had filed a criminal defamation charge with Swiss authorities against his unnamed detractors.

All of the staffers Gurry had allegedly suspected were cleared—after their diplomatic immunity was temporarily lifted and their DNA formally checked by police. The formal clearances, Pooley says, came a week after Gurry was confirmed as WIPO’s new Director General.

Even though none of the staffers was charged, Pooley argues, what happened between the secret acquisitions and the police checks was “nothing less than a burglary of personal property that carried biological evidence of the persons who owned it,” an “unlawful act” that was also a “violation of human rights.”

According to Pooley, the alleged crime was discovered after one of the affected staffers persisted in obtaining the police lab reports on the issue, and discovered that DNA samples had been taken months before the formal police checks.

One of the samples in the lab report, it turned out, came from a WIPO security officer with ties to Gurry, who now works at another U.N. agency. Pooley argues—circumstantially—that “it does not stretch our understanding of human behavior to infer” that Gurry could have ordered the actions.

Since then, according to Pooley, Gurry has actively been involved in covering up the case. One of the offended staffers filed her own criminal complaint about the privacy violations in 2009, and the next year filed a case with the International Labor Organization Administrative Tribunal, which handles WIPO staff justice issues. 

Amid charges and counter-charges, Pooley says that Gurry suddenly ordered the woman transferred from Geneva to Singapore, a move she did not want to make; the woman subsequently reached a settlement with WIPO that included a non-disclosure agreement.

The DNA theft issue was taken up again in 2012 by another staffer—Gurry’s newly-created Strategic Advisor to the Director General, Miranda Brown, a fellow Australian who arrived at WIPO as the previous case was reaching its height.   Brown subsequently resigned from her job in December, 2012, charging that Gurry had made her work “impossible.”


Before she left, however, Brown also filed a request for an investigation of Gurry that eventually included the alleged DNA theft. According to Pooley, that probe was squelched after Gurry put severe pressure on WIPO’s chief internal watchdog, who reports to the Director General as well as an independent audit committee.

In February 2014, Brown brought her own complaint against Gurry to the ILO Administrative Tribunal, over the lack of investigation by WIPO of her charges. Among other things, Brown argued that her resignation from WIPO was “forced,” the investigation of her charges was “completely corrupted,” and that having exhausted the “internal means of redress,” she demanded an “independent investigation into these disturbing circumstances.”

That case is still grinding through the ILO justice machinery, and according to Pooley “is likely to take years to resolve.”

The question is whether Pooley’s intervention will make much anything happen much faster. The response of the State Department to his “Report of Misconduct” hints that the Obama Administration is not about to come charging into battle any time soon.

In response to e-mailed queries from Fox News, a State Department spokesman said the WIPO official had “discussed his concerns with the U.S. Mission in Geneva in advance of his decision to make his allegations public,” and that Pooley’s report “has been shared with appropriate offices throughout the United States government. 

The spokesman added that “We take the allegations in Mr. Pooley’s report very seriously and are reviewing the report carefully.    The U.S. Government is committed to eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse at the United Nations and elsewhere, and will continue to work to assure that whistle blowers can report wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.”

Moreover, the spokesman declared,  “The State Department has expressed to Mr. Gurry its concerns about the need for continued reform at WIPO to improve management practices and efficiency.   We continue to work with WIPO, as we do with all international organizations, to promote transparent procedures and accountability.” 

Likely translation: don’t hold your breath.

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