The head of the United Nations environment agency and his staff blew millions of shillings in unnecessary and budgeted travel expenses, according to a draft audit report.
Just 22 months since Erik Solheim took over from Achim Steiner as the Executive Director of Nairobi-based Unep, a not very flattering report says he pays too little attention to the environment, the regulations and the budget of his office.
And now the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which conducted the audit, has recommended that Mr Solheim refunds the UN agency “all travel costs and related staff time not accounted for and all additional costs incurred by Unep as a result of uneconomical and inefficient decisions made by management”.
In reviewing the travel expenditure at Unep, OIOS noted that there was extensive travel by three senior managers during the period under review resulting in total travel costs of $740,893 (Sh74m).
Some of the causes for such high expenditures included uneconomical routing for flight itineraries, opting for more expensive airlines, and implementing teleworking arrangements which were outside the existing guidelines on flexible working arrangements.
“There was no demonstration of efficiency, accountability, value addition and transparency for some of the travel expenditure incurred by the three managers,” the audit says.
Mr Solheim, referred to in the report as Manager A, for instance is said to have incurred $488,519 in travel from May 2016 to March 2018.
The duty station
He also spent 529 days of his 22 months as head of UN Environment globetrotting, “resulting in an absence rate of 79 per cent from the duty station. The manager travelled extensively across the continents making several trips and stops in Paris, France, as well as his home country, Norway.
"In total, the manager spent 90 days in Paris and Oslo, but did not provide details or mission reports for 76 of those days to demonstrate relevance of travel. The remaining 14 days were accounted for either as leave days or personal deviations,” the report says.
Furthermore, the audit found that for many of Mr Solheim’s trips reviewed, he re-routed his travels to include multiple stops in either Paris or Oslo resulting in increased travel costs.
“On one occasion, the manager made an eight-hour trip from Washington DC for a weekend in Paris before taking another flight to New York City. Some of the travel stops made to Paris and Oslo were included in the travel plan as official travel and described as ‘bilateral meetings’ even though they were made over the weekend and during the Christmas holiday,” the report says.
Various other trips such as those to Stockholm, Dubai, Panama City and several cities in China lacked details or mission reports to justify that they were official in nature.
“On two occasions, Manager A chose to travel using more expensive airlines, resulting in an additional cost of $6,800,” the report states.
Meanwhile, another senior official of the UN agency referred to in the report as Manager B and believed to be the Chief of Staff, is said to have spent 349 days in travel between August 2016 and March 2018, incurring costs amounting to $95,343.
“Two hundred and twenty nine of these days were spent in Paris, France, which is her home country,” the report notes.
The OIOS report states that the manager did not provide mission reports to account for her stay in Paris, “stating that the usual practice given the political and confidential nature of the meetings held relating to either strategic high-level political engagements with member states and partners, or the organisation’s internal management issues, is oral debriefing directly to the executive director”.
The manager is also said to have told the auditors that “she was involved in strategic engagements with the French government and partners and that mission reports were an option and not mandatory within the UN Secretariat”.
“Upon further follow up by OIOS, Manager B submitted internal correspondence stating that she was ‘involved in intergovernmental negotiations, organising summits and engagements with partners and celebrities,'" the auditors note.
They also raise questions about Mr Solheim approval to have Manager B work from the Paris office under a teleworking arrangement, owing to family ties in Paris even though the arrangement is against the policy.
“Manager B’s stays in Paris were extensive, lasting between three to four weeks, broken by short stays in her duty station, Nairobi, of two to four days, before returning to Paris.”
The manager is also reported to have travelled to other cities such as New York, Bonn, Brussels, Copenhagen and Stockholm where she got DSA, but did not account for her stay there.
“OIOS noted that economies of travel may not have been taken into consideration on some of her travels. For example, Manager B travelled from Nairobi to other cities in Europe for one-day meetings, despite the Europe Region having 22 directors at D2 and D1 level who had proximity to these cities,” the report notes.
Another manager, referred to as Manager C in the report but understood to be one of the branch directors in-charge of oceans, is said to have incurred travel costs amounting to $157,031, which included travels to Alicante, Oslo and Brussels without clear justification and did not account for them.
In August 2017, the manager also received approval from Mr Solheim to work from the Unep Paris office instead of her duty station in Nairobi, under a teleworking arrangement that was not in line with the policy on flexible working arrangements.
Under this arrangement, Manager C would work from the Paris office and commute to her duty station of Nairobi eight times a year.
Interestingly, even as the manager was working from Paris, OIOS found that between August 2017 and January, “Manager C originated all her trips from Nairobi instead of her new station in Paris”.
UN Environment’s executive press secretary Stefan Smith when contacted said Mr Solheim was currently attending a climate summit in San Francisco and would remain abroad on engagements next week.
But he added, “We’re in the unfortunate position of being unable to comment on this matter, as it concerns a confidential audit process that is still in progress”.