Matthew Russell Lee barely had time to notice the person who sat uncomfortably close to him at a First Avenue bus shelter.
In a split second, he was handed a scrap of paper.
“Look under the bench,” read the hand-scrawled note.
When he looked up, the stranger had disappeared, but a fat, unmarked file folder was sitting under his seat.
The stash of documents — a leak from a UN deepthroat — revealed wild spending at a UN agency.
“It was just like a movie,” said Lee, 52, a reporter for Inner City Press, his daily news blog about the United Nations.
“I’m still trying to process everything in the file,” said Lee, who has spent more than a decade covering the international body, haranguing delegates in three languages over global audits, failed peacekeeping and sexual abuse by UN-sponsored soldiers.
Lee used to be an accredited UN correspondent. At one point, he even had his own office. With his heavy black L.L.Bean backpack slung on one shoulder and a microphone protruding from his cellphone, he has long been a familiar sight to reporters and delegates gathered for the annual General Assembly. (This year’s international gabfest began last week and continues to Oct. 1.)
But two months ago, the UN banned him. For life.
The harsh measure came after his July stakeout of a closed-door budget-committee meeting after office hours in the Secretariat Building, the 39-story centerpiece of the UN on First Avenue.
After conducting an interview with a delegate from Cameroon, Lee headed to a table to transcribe his notes when he was collared by two UN security guards. One of them ripped his shirt as he forced him out of the building through the UN garage.
Lee used his phone to film the altercation and later filed a report with the NYPD. They refused to get involved, citing the UN’s diplomatic immunity, he said.
“I’m a journalist covering a 6 billion-dollar budget, and these guys tore my shirt, tore my pass right in front of you,” Lee said to a UN bureaucrat who witnessed him being bounced from the building on July 3. “You’re an assistant secretary general. Is that OK with you?”
Lee has been a thorn in the side of the UN since he started blogging from the 193-nation organization in 2005. After complaints from UN diplomats about his aggressive reporting style, Lee lost his UN office in February 2016. It was given to a representative of the Egyptian state media who “hasn’t asked a question of the UN in a decade,” he said.
Lee was also demoted from “resident” UN correspondent to “nonresident” reporter after UN staff determined his conduct was undiplomatic.
This was apparently because he sometimes filmed his own derisive commentary of UN staff and even fellow journalists after business hours at the UN — in breach of several rules.
In the Aug. 17 letter banning him from the UN, Under-Secretary General for Global Communications Alison Smale said his behavior “gives rise to potential safety concerns for member state diplomats, United Nations staff and other individuals accessing United Nations premises.”
One UN staff member told The Post that people are spooked by his behavior.
“It’s chilling,” said the staffer, who did not want to be identified. “He walks around the halls of the UN at night filming and shouting out questions in front of people’s offices.”
Lee has been protesting the judgment, but there is no one at the UN to complain to, he said.
“There is no First Amendment on First Avenue,” Lee said.
In his oxford shirt, khakis and black sneakers, Lee continues to report on the UN, regularly staking out diplomats outside the delegates entrance on First Avenue. He uses the bus stop on First Avenue as an impromptu office, taking advantage of MTA Wi-Fi from passing buses.
He asks the diplomats tough questions, such as how they spend the UN’s $5.4 billion annual budget, to which the US contributes $1.2 billion.
“The UN is a black hole of accountability,” Lee told The Post. “There are no checks and balances, no external review and no oversight.”
And the leadership rarely lives up to its own lofty principles, he said.
Take Earth Hour, the UN’s annual spring campaign to turn off nonessential lights from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. During that time on March 24, Lee documented lights on at several UN missions.
Lee got on his bike and rode to Sutton Place, where lights were also on at the official residence of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a $15 million townhouse that is exempt from paying property tax to the city.
“Look at the hypocrisy,” said Lee, who speaks French and Spanish and is himself the son of a US diplomat who was stationed in the Ivory Coast.
Lee grew up in Washington, DC, and spent two years at Harvard before dropping out and moving to New York in the mid-1980s to work with homeless people.
Lee, who lives in The Bronx, said he got a law degree from Fordham University so he could sue banks and landlords on behalf of his impoverished clients. He refused to give details about his family and said he supports himself by doing legal work, freelancing (sometimes under an assumed name) and the licensing of his stories on the LexisNexis database.
He told The Post that he first came to the UN to cover an environmental conference involving some of the biggest banks in the US at the end of 2005.
“I wanted to ask questions, and I was told that only accredited media could ask questions,” he said. “So I got accredited. And I stayed.”
He went on to question the UN’s response to ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the slaughter of Tamils in Sri Lanka, among other human-rights issues.
“I used to believe in the UN,” he said. “I used to think it stood for decolonization and existed to help the underdog. Now it’s about trading favors, selling access and actively covering up human-rights violations.”
Some of journalist blogger Matthew Russell Lee’s most urgent complaints about the United Nations:
Broken promise to Haiti cholera victims
Last year, a federal judge in Brooklyn dismissed a class-action suit filed on behalf of Haitians who had been infected with cholera brought by UN-led Nepali peacekeepers in 2010 after a magnitude-7 earthquake devastated the country.
The epidemic led to 10,000 deaths. But the plaintiffs were left pretty much empty-handed because the UN could not be sued in US courts under a 1946 decree granting the organization “immunity from every form of legal process.”
In 2016, then-outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized to Haiti. Citing “a moral responsibility” to compensate Haiti’s victims of cholera, Ki-moon promised to create a $400 million trust fund, calling on UN members to voluntarily contribute to help Haitians.
But, according to Lee, most member states refused to fund the initiative. “It’s absolutely shameful,” he said. Only $1.5 million raised in the fund was sent to Haiti, UN reports say
Secretary-general’s family matters
Lee calls out Secretary-General António Guterres (right), a former prime minister of Portugal, for failing to disclose conflicts of interest, including his son’s work for a company with holdings in African countries where the UN is active.
Since 2009, Pedro Guimarães e Melo de Oliveira Guterres has been a manager at PT Portugal, the largest telecommunications provider in Portugal, according to reports. The Portuguese company “has significant interests in telecommunications companies in Angola, Cape Verde, Namibia and São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa and in East Timor in Asia,” SEC filings say.
A Guterres spokesman said the secretary-general “abides by the UN’s financial disclosure rules” and “has never involved himself in his son’s employment nor has he ever at any point discussed it with anyone during his tenure at the UN.”
Lee has also been critical of Guterres’ frequent travel to Lisbon, where his wife, Catarina Vaz Pinto, is a deputy mayor for culture. Since he took over as secretary-general on Jan. 1, 2017, he has taken 15 trips to the Portuguese capital on the UN’s dime, according to itineraries obtained by Lee.
The spokesman told The Post that Guterres “frequently travels through Lisbon on official business, taking advantage of the weekend. This is done at no extra cost” to the UN. In addition to his wife, Guterres goes to visit his elderly mother, the spokesman said.
Travel spending soars sky high
In documents recently leaked to him, Lee found a jump in travel costs, including first-class airfares, at the UN Development Program. The agency — which aims “to achieve the eradication of poverty and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion” — has spent $26 million this year on travel, Lee said. One UN staffer spent $28,000 for a flight from New York to Geneva, he said.
Lee regularly follows UN diplomats to posh eateries in Manhattan. Last August, he posted video of Guterres and General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak arriving for lunch in three black SUVs at Aretsky’s Patroon (left) — two blocks from UN headquarters.
And despite a $2.3 billion renovation, the UN building has structural problems, including flooding, Lee said.
In the past four years, the UN has been beset by allegations of peacekeepers raping women and children in the countries they are assigned to help.
Although Guterres has vowed a “zero tolerance” policy and set up an office for a victims’-rights advocate last year, most of the accused rapists “are not subject to any penalties,” Lee said.
A probe by the UN identified 41 peacekeepers alleged to have committed sexual assaults in the Central African Republic between 2014 and 2015, but the world body has taken little action against the soldiers, according to Lee.