May 16, 2007 4:08 am

Wolfowitz in final plea to keep job

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Paul Wolfowitz on Tuesday night made a final emotional plea to the World Bank board to clear him of ethics violation charges as pressure intensified for him to resign as bank president or risk being fired.

His appearance followed the release of Monday’s devastating report by a panel charged with investigating Mr Wolfowitz’s handling of a secondment package for Shaha Riza, a bank official with whom he was romantically involved.

The panel found he broke the bank’s code of conduct, three staff rules and the terms of his contract when he personally arranged a generous secondment package for Ms Riza.

Adopting a conciliatory tone that contrasted sharply with earlier aggressive attempts to contest the panel’s investigation, Mr Wolfowitz on Tuesday night said that in a lifetime of public service noone had questioned his “honesty or integrity.”

He said he and Ms Riza “have been held up to public ridicule. I have been caricatured as a boyfriend who used his position of power to help his girfriend.”

Mr Wolfowitz said that this was why he had been “fighting so hard to defend myself.”

The bank president invited the board to have a substantive debate over his policies and leadership instead.

“If you want to have a discussion about my leadership, my management style and the policies I support, let’s do it. That’s fair, that’s legitimate. But let’s get past this conflict of interest issue.”

He warned the bank that the way the ethics investigation was concluded could “do greater long-term damage to the institution than the alleged underlying ethics issue.”

Mr Wolfowitz repeated his claim that he acted in good faith throughout and urged the board to find that “my conduct with respect to Ms Riza’s external placement does not justify taking any action against me or warrant a finding that you lack confidence in my leadership.”

He said the package for Ms Riza should be understood of a “settlement agreement” to resolve Ms Riza’s “legitimate grievences” – a characterisation the investigating panel rejected.

The bank president handed board directors copies of e-mails written by Xavier Coll, the bank’s human resources chief, and quoted Mr Coll as saying: “we are in a a very difficult situation – with no precedent at the bank.”

The memorandum cited by Mr Wolfowitz shows that Mr Coll thought “the situation required more flexibility than in other past cases.”

However, it also revealed that Mr Coll was concerned about awarding Ms Riza additional benefits on top of those recommended by the ethics committee.

It showed that he wanted to consult the bank’s top lawyer for advice on how to proceed, but was told not to do so by Mr Wolfowitz.

The bank president offered a partial apology, saying: “I have said I am not without fault in the matter.”

He repeated his offer to make big changes to his management style if he is allowed to continue in his job.

Mr Wolfowitz admitted he “relied much too long on advisers who came in with me from outside for managerial functions” and promised to rely more on career bank staff.

He said he would work closely with the senior bank executives, the vice-presidents, and “place more trust in the staff.”

However, staff at all levels of the bank – including the most senior ranks – are in open revolt against Mr Wolfowitz, and it seems all but impossible that even a radical shake-up would reconcile them to his continued tenure.

Thirty-seven of the bank’s 39 country directors wrote a letter on Monday night to the board and Mr Wolfowitz calling on the bank to “practice what it preaches on governance and accountability.”

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