NEW YORK — The World Bank is investigating one of its most outspoken employee activists, who has campaigned both for LGBT rights and financial transparency.
According to lawyers for Fabrice Houdart, a senior country officer for the Middle East and North Africa who stepped down last week as president of the World Bank's LGBT employee organization, the bank is investigating Houdart for allegedly leaking a sensitive draft policy to establish human rights and environmental "safeguards" for Bank loans last year. Houdart denies leaking the document, his lawyers said.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said he "can't and won't comment" on the investigation because it concerns "internal matters that are related to specific human resources issues." But, Kim said, "Do we have information that we tell specifically with our staff cannot be shared with others that this is privileged information? Absolutely. And like just about every other organization I can think of if there are explicit rules that you cannot share this information, [when] employees break the rules and go around those rules and share the information, we have to investigate it."
Houdart's attorneys said they suspect that the World Bank may be singling out Houdart because of his criticism of the bank's leadership over the last year, as it has been roiled by divisions over a controversial restructuring plan, downsizing, and debate over the safeguards proposal Houdart is alleged to have leaked.
"We're looking into the possibility that the actions taken with respect to him by the bank are discriminatory and retaliatory," said Beatrice Edwards, executive director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a public interest law firm that specializes in defending whistleblowers. Houdart declined to comment for this story and directed all questions to his attorneys.
Houdart has pushed the bank over the past year to pay greater attention to the impact its lending has on LGBT people by organizing public forums. He also maintained an internal blog on the bank's intranet that has been sharply critical of the financial management by Kim's leadership team. In October, Houdart uncovered accounting that revealed a $94,000 bonus to the bank's chief financial officer, Bertrand Badré, just as the bank was announcing hundreds of layoffs to meet Kim's plan to cut $400 million from the operating budget. This became a flashpoint in employee protests that built through the fall, and Kim ultimately held a town hall meeting in which he announced that Badré would give up the bonus. He also announced the no-retaliation policy to address what employees told reporters was a "climate of fear."
Edwards said it "raised obvious questions" that the bank would wait almost a year to investigate the leak allegations. She said it was also suspicious that they became aware of a formal inquiry a few days after Houdart published a blog post in which he questioned how much had been paid to Locke Lord, a law firm that was hired to review allegations that the bank's leadership had mishandled a $1 billion loan from China. Houdart learned Locke Lord would now run the new inquiry against him rather than the internal bank offices that usually investigate employee misconduct.
"That's the basis for the suspicion is that it's a discriminatory and retaliatory investigation," Edwards said. The bank has "involved someone who clearly has an interest in discrediting the person they are investigating."
Locke Lord spokespeople did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
A bank employee familiar with Houdart's thinking who asked to speak anonymously for fear of retaliation said Houdart is contemplating running for president of the bank's staff association in elections next month, and suspects that the investigation may also be intended to prevent him from winning the office because of his role in the widespread protests against Kim's leadership that came to a head last fall.
"The fact that [Houdart] may run makes them very nervous," said the employee. "They will do just about anything to try to stop him from becoming president."
Though Kim would not comment on the investigation, he strongly denied that the bank would allow retaliation against employees critical of leadership.
"We have a zero tolerance policy for retaliation in this and every other case," Kim told BuzzFeed News. "In fact, we have made it a point to require training for retaliation for everybody. I took it myself."
Yet sources familiar with Houdart's battle with the bank leadership continue to fear retribution and refuse to speak publicly. Some say privately that the investigation against him is potentially explosive because he sits at the intersection of two employee movements seeking to transform the 70-year old development giant: one against the Bank restructuring, and the other pushing for broader attention to the human rights impact of its lending.
Kim won praise from many LGBT rights activists after he blocked a $90 million health care loan to Uganda after it enacted a sweeping anti-LGBT law last February. The move was accompanied by an op-ed in the Washington Post that declared, "Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies." But despite this unprecedented denunciation of anti-LGBT policies from a World Bank leader, many human rights activists have criticized Kim for failing to follow up on this declaration and not going far enough in the proposed safeguards. Under Houdart's leadership, the bank's LGBT organization filed comments on the safeguards draft saying it was "too focused on limiting reputational damage to the Bank" and not really committed to making sure LGBT people and other minorities fully benefited from development aid.
After the publication of this article, Houdart tweeted the following.