US withholds WIPO funding over failure to investigate serious misconduct allegations levelled at agency's boss

US withholds WIPO funding over failure to investigate serious misconduct allegations levelled at agency's boss

In an unprecedented move the United States is to withhold funding from WIPO. According to a report on the FOX News website, the decision is connected to concerns about the lack of progress in an investigation into allegations of serious misconduct levelled at the organisation’s Director-General Francis Gurry by one-time deputy Director General James Pooley in April 2014 and at failures to appoint a permanent ethics officer.

The amount in question, $370,000, is relatively inconsequential given that WIPO’s annual income is well over $650 million, mostly accounted for by various filing fees from IP owners using its registration services, but symbolically it is important. It is the first time the US has ever taken such action in relation to any UN agency.

IAM has been following this story for well over a year now; our interest (and shock) originally piqued by threats made against blogger Gene Quinn by WIPO Legal Counsel Edward Kwakwa after Quinn linked to a copy of Pooley’s allegations in a story on his IP Watchdog site. Most recently, in May this year we reported that the chair of WIPO’s General Assemblies had called in the UN’s Organisation of Internal Oversight to investigate the Pooley claims.  

From the start, the lack of transparency and the endless delays in getting to the bottom of the allegations have been a source of continuous bewilderment to us; not least because the reputations of two esteemed members of the global IP community are at stake. If what Pooley says is right, Gurry will have plenty of questions to answer. If it is not, then Pooley himself will. What’s more, as IP comes under increasing public and political scrutiny, with many questioning whether it does more harm than good, such a controversy – and the failure to deal with it openly and in good time – does nobody who believes in the positive role IP can and does play in the world any good at all.

Pooley left WIPO in November last year following the expiration of his six year term as deputy Director General and has now returned to private practice in the US. However, I understand that two months prior to his departure, Pooley filed a further complaint, this time relating to actions he claims were taken against him following the submission of his April 2014 report. But it seems that WIPO’s acting ethics officer - who is a direct report to the Director General – did not begin any investigation, before ruling in the early part of this year that one was not possible because Pooley had left the organisation.

On the face of it, that seems somewhat strange. Pooley was a staff member when the complaint was filed and WIPO’s Whistleblower Protection Policy states that its Ethics Office is supposed to undertake reviews of retaliation complaints within 60 days; what’s more, I understand that it does not mention anything about not being able to look at complaints made by former staff members (logically, this is to be expected as otherwise it would create some perverse incentives; for example, managers might be better off terminating someone as retaliation, because by definition the person would be a former staff member and bereft of any right to complain).

The more you look at this whole affair, the murkier and more worrisome it becomes. I have no idea what the truth is of the original charges Pooley levelled at Gurry, but I do know that they should be thoroughly, independently and transparently investigated. At best, what has happened since April 2014 indicates that WIPO is so utterly dysfunctional it is not capable of doing that. That is just not good enough. It seems that the US State Department now agrees. Whether that will lead to any further light being shone on events remains to be seen. Given what has happened so far, I would not bet on it.

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