NEW YORK, May 10: The United Nations won the first round of a skirmish against the US Congress on Monday when a federal judge temporarily blocked a former investigator from distributing documents on the oil-for-food program for Iraq. District Judge Ricardo Urbina in Washington issued a 10-day restraining order against the investigator, Robert Parton, a former FBI agent, so that both sides could have time to resolve the issue.

The restraining order was sought by Paul Volcker, head of a UN-appointed Independent Inquiry Committee (ICC) investigating fraud in the $67 billion humanitarian program. Mr Parton resigned from the Volcker probe, saying he believed the committee’s last report was not tough enough on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

On Thursday he turned over documents from the IIC to the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, led by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde. The suit seeks to force Mr Parton to return the documents and not comply with subpoenas from two other congressional committees.

Susan Ringler, counsel for the IIC, said in a supporting brief that the documents could ‘pose a grave risk to the safety of Iraqi witnesses, who if their names are disclosed, fear for their lives and the lives of their families’.

But the U.N. complaint puts the inquiry committee on a collision course with the U.S. Congress where Republican legislators accuse the IIC of undue secrecy and Mr Volcker says he has to protect the credibility of his investigation.

Lanny Davis, Mr Parton’s lawyer, said that his client provided information to Congress because he was forced to do so by a subpoena and would comply with the court’s ruling. Mr Parton, in his own statement, said he kept copies of “certain materials relating to the areas of the investigation for which I was responsible because of my concern that the investigative process and conclusions were flawed”.

In the court documents, the UN brief said Mr Parton had agreed, in writing to respect the confidentiality of the investigation, which he then violated.

“In fact, however, Mr Parton appears to have unlawfully removed large quantities of Independent Inquiry Committee materials,” the UN complaint said. Mr Volcker on Friday offered a compromise to Congressional committees to allow Mr Parton to give a one-off public statement providing the materials were returned.

The oil-for-food program, which began in late 1996 and ended in 2003, was aimed at easing the impact of sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait in 1990. Baghdad was allowed to sell oil to buy basic goods and could negotiate its own contracts.

After the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq disclosed a virtual who’s who of groups and individuals around the world whom Saddam bribed in an effort to get the sanctions lifted. Mr Volcker, who will give a final report this summer, released an interim report on March 29 that said there was no evidence Mr Annan had interfered in the awarding of a lucrative contract in Iraq to the Swiss firm Cotecna, which employed his son, Kojo.

But it said the secretary-general was lax in not investigating the possible conflict of interest when U.N. officials closed the probe after only 24 hours. “That non-finding is hardly an endorsement or exoneration,” Mr Volcker said, adding that “on the basis of the facts reported, others may, and have, drawn other inferences.”

Mr Parton, however, said he disagreed with “the path the ICC chose to take”. He said the documents allowed him to ‘be in a position to defend myself against risks that I knew existed as a result of the IIC Committee’s actions’. —Reuters