Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Sports

FIFA soccer officials charged in long-running global corruption scheme

With billions of dollars at stake, Morocco, Egypt and South Africa jockeyed in 2004 for the privilege of hosting soccer's most prestigious tournament, the World Cup. The outcome hinged on a decision by the executive committee of FIFA, soccer's governing body, and a single vote could tip the decision.

At least one vote, prosecutors said Wednesday, was for sale.

Jack Warner, a committee member from Trinidad and Tobago, shopped his ballot to the highest bidder, federal prosecutors said. In early 2004, he flew to Morocco, where a member of that country's bid committee offered him $1 million. But South Africa had a sweeter deal, offering $10 million to a group that Warner controlled, prosecutors said. He voted for South Africa. South Africa got the World Cup. And Warner got his $10 million payout, much of which prosecutors said he diverted for his personal use.

For decades, that was how business was done in international soccer, U.S. officials said Wednesday as they announced a sweeping indictment against 14 soccer officials and marketing executives that they said corrupted the sport through two decades of shadowy dealing and $150 million in bribes.

Hours after Swiss authorities arrived unannounced at a Zurich hotel and arrested top FIFA officials early Wednesday, the Justice Department and prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York declared that their investigation had only just begun.

"These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who supervised the investigation from its earliest stages, when she was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament."

Soccer officials treated FIFA business decisions as chits to be traded for personal wealth, U.S. officials said. Whether through convoluted financial deals or old-fashioned briefcases full of cash, people were expected to pay for access to FIFA's river of money and publicity. The federal indictment lists 47 counts including bribery, fraud and money laundering.

Despite the broad nature of the charges, the case itself arrived at the Justice Department as something of a surprise. The four-year FBI investigation grew out of an unrelated inquiry into aspects of Russian organized crime by the Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Task Force in the FBI's New York office, the New York Times reported, citing people with knowledge of the case's origins. Authorities soon realized the potential scope of an investigation into the sporting world's most powerful organization.

Though many of the charges revolve around activities that occurred abroad, Lynch said she never had qualms about bringing charges in the United States. U.S. law allows for extradition and prosecution of foreign nationals under a number of statutes, and court documents say that the activity affected interstate and foreign commerce, and took place in part in New York.

In this case, she said, FIFA officials used the American banking system as part of their scheme. "They clearly thought the U.S. was a safe financial haven for them," she said.

FIFA has been dogged by accusations of corruption for years, but the organization and its top officials typically avoided any punishment. That has been especially true for Sepp Blatter, the organization's longtime president who is widely regarded as the most powerful man in sports. Blatter was not named in the federal indictment, and after FIFA provisionally suspended the officials who were named, he issued a statement saying the investigations would make the sport stronger.

The soccer officials charged are Jeffrey Webb, Eduardo Li, Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz.

While the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were not mentioned in the U.S. charges, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland said Wednesday that it had opened a criminal investigation into how those hosts were selected.

In 2010, the United States bid to host the 2022 World Cup, but it lost out to Qatar — a small wealthy emirate on the Persian Gulf where daytime temperatures in summer months often exceed 120 degrees.

For Lynch, the announcement of the charges capping the long investigation was bittersweet. She was traveling in South Africa in 2010 when the country learned it would host the World Cup. Citizens were ecstatic with the hope that the tournament would put South Africa back on the sporting map and bring the fractured nation together.

"I remember that vividly," she said. "To learn that was engendered by corruption was truly saddening."

 
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