[JURIST] Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer [official website] on Tuesday denied that he received or read [PDF transcript] several cables which were sent by diplomats and trade officials to warn the Australian government that the country's leading wheat exporter was paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's former regime [JURIST report] under the UN's now-defunct oil-for-food program [JURIST news archive]. Downer joined Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile [official website] in denying his knowledge of the conspiracy in which the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) [corporate website] allegedly paid $220 million to Hussein's government between 1997 and 2003 in order to receive grain contracts worth $2.3 billion.
The testimony of Downer and Vaile was taken by government lawyers who have been questioning [JURIST report] government officials, diplomats and AWB executives about their knowledge of the kickbacks as part of the Australian judicial inquiry [Cole Commission website] into the alleged conspiracy. Australian Prime Minister John Howard [official profile] said he would also give a written statement [JURIST report] to the inquiry, but has denied that his government was aware of the scam. AP has more.