Maurice Strong is a man of many dazzling incarnations. With his twinkly eyes and little white moustache, he has the demeanour of a benign old uncle. But don't be fooled. He's among the most well-connected and influential men on the planet.
Mr. Strong is variously identified as a Canadian business tycoon, a visionary thinker, a high-ranking UN official, or even Kofi Annan's right-hand man. He is the UN's chief shuttle diplomat on North Korea. He is the godfather of Kyoto. He ran Petro-Canada and Ontario Hydro. He's got a finger in a zillion business ventures. He's on a first-name basis with business leaders and heads of state around the world. He was one of the young Paul Martin's most influential mentors, and he remains a close friend and unofficial adviser to the PM.
And now, Mr. Strong has become a player -- an unwitting one, he insists -- in the notorious oil-for-food scandal that has rocked the United Nations to its roots. An indictment issued last week by U.S. authorities alleges that a corrupt South Korean named Tongsun Park funnelled more than a million dollars of Saddam Hussein's dirty money into a Canadian company run by Mr. Strong's son, in hopes of currying favour with, and getting favours from, his friends at the UN.
Coincidentally, one of the other investors in the company (which eventually went bust) was none other than Paul Martin's CSL Group. It's a small world after all.
Mr. Strong has never drawn a line between his business interests and his interest in saving the planet. The overlap has always been considerable. His connections with Mr. Park, which go back years, are just one example. "Indeed, as a native of North Korea, he has advised me on North Korean issues in my role as UN envoy," he said this week.
You might think a prominent diplomat like Mr. Strong would keep his distance from someone with the reputation of Mr. Park. Back in the 1970s, Mr. Park was the middleman in a scandal dubbed Koreagate, in which he ferried hundreds of thousands of dollars from the South Korean dictator of the day to various U.S. congressmen.
The indictment charges that Mr. Park was a secret agent for Saddam's regime, which allegedly paid him millions to bribe his UN contacts. (Mr. Park is currently hiding out in parts unknown.) According to a government witness, Mr. Park told him he had invested a million dollars of this money in a Canadian company connected to the son of someone identified in the indictment only as "UN official No. 2."
It's now clear that UN official No. 2 is Maurice Strong and the company was Cordex, in which both Mr. Strong and his son Fred were involved. The independent panel investigating oil-for-food, chaired by heavyweight Paul Volcker, is now seeking further information on Mr. Strong, who yesterday suspended himself as the UN's envoy to North Korea.
Mr. Strong flatly denies any involvement with oil-for-food, and he says Mr. Park invested on a "normal commercial basis" with Cordex. But the optics are awful. The charges have tightened the screws even harder on Kofi Annan and the battered UN, where the oil-for-food scandal has already reached the very top. Even Kofi's son Kojo is caught in the net.
Mr. Strong, no surprise, knows Kojo. They briefly sat together on the board of Air Harbour Technologies, a company owned by the son of a former Saudi oil minister, which won a controversial contract to build an airport in Zimbabwe. Mr. Strong recently referred to Kojo as "a very pleasant person."
By the way, Paul Volcker, who is now seeking more information on Mr. Strong, is a friend and adviser to Paul Desmarais Sr., who owns Power Corp., the company that Mr. Strong once ran shortly before Mr. Desmarais took it over. All this makes the conspiracy theorists giddy with delight. They never tire of pointing out that Power Corp. has an interest in the giant energy firm Total, which received large amounts of oil from Iraq and was also in discussions with Saddam to develop oil fields in Iraq if sanctions were lifted. (For the record, there's no evidence that Power Corp. was mixed up in oil-for-food.)
Power Corp. was also the making of a certain bright young man named Paul Martin. It was Mr. Strong who took a shine to Mr. Martin and hired him as his special assistant. And it was Paul Desmarais who put Mr. Martin in charge of Canada Steamship Lines (Mr. Martin eventually bought the company.)
As I said, it's a small world. And Mr. Strong knows everybody in it.