FIFA Corruption Investigation: Biggest Takeaways from Swiss, United States Probe

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2015

FIFA Corruption Investigation: Biggest Takeaways from Swiss, United States Probe

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    On Wednesday, the United States Justice Department, FBI and IRS, in conjunction with Swiss legal authorities, indicted nine FIFA officials and five sports-marketing executives from the United States and South America on charges including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy, according to 

The Schemes Reportedly Ran Deep and Involved Lucrative Bribes

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    The New York Times report outlined several of the intricate and lucrative schemes that American and Swiss authorities were investigating. 

    Some of the payments were funneled through intricate schemes. After committing fraud, bribery and money laundering, prosecutors wrote, defendants covered up those payments in various ways: using fake consulting contracts to funnel illegal payments; sending money through associates working in banking or currency dealing; creating shell companies in tax havens; hiding foreign bank accounts; using safe deposit boxes; and “bulk cash smuggling.”

    The report also described some of the specific bribes that were offered and accepted. For example, a $1 million bribe from a Moroccan bid committee member to Warner for the 2010 World Cup was denied after the South African committee put together a bribe of $10 million for Warner and two other voters, all of whom ultimately voted for South Africa to host the event.

    The investigation not only suggests that such bribes were commonplace, but that there is likely far more to be uncovered and that the investigation is far from over. 

    FIFA's history of alleged corruption is nothing new, of course, nor are investigations into the Russian and Qatar World Cup bids. After many nations cried foul over Russia and Qatar being awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, FIFA appointed attorney Michael Garcia to investigate any corruption tied to the bids. He spent 18 months compiling a 350-page report, but FIFA trimmed his findings to 42 pages and cleared itself of any wrongdoing.

    Per Saeed Ahmed and Ralph Ellis of CNN, Garcia called FIFA's stripped-down report "incomplete and erroneous." Garcia resigned as chairman of the investigatory chamber of FIFA's independent ethics committee in December.

The US and Swiss Governments Combined Forces

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    Because the United States and Switzerland have a treaty, the Swiss can reject extradition for tax crimes, according to the Times report, but the country has agreed to hand over suspects in general-law cases.

    Surely, the indicted will try to find a loophole in those extradition terms—six have already rejected the extradition, per the Associated Press (h/t ABC News)—but the groundwork is in place for those indicted in Switzerland on Wednesday to be extradited and tried on United States soil. 

    While the United States probe will mostly focus on any transgressions involving CONCACAF, the organizing body for North American and Central American soccer, the Swiss investigation is focused on the bids for the 2018 Russia World Cup and the 2022 Qatar World Cup. 

The 2018 and 2022 World Cup Hosts Are Currently Safe

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    "Currently" is the key word, however.

    In response to the indictments on Wednesday, FIFA director of communications and public affairs Walter de Gregorio vehemently stated that there would be no revotes on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts despite the multiple allegations of bribery and fraud in the bid process, per Ben Curtis of the Mirror.

    That is the current landscape, but it's hard to imagine FIFA wouldn't be forced to open a revote if a number of FIFA officials were found guilty of accepting bribes in exchange for their vote for Russia or Qatar. 

    The decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been extremely controversial from the start. For one, the country is unbearably hot in the months the tournament is traditionally held, and the plans for fully air-conditioned indoor stadiums were claimed by many to to be unfeasible and weren't enough to keep FIFA from moving the event to the winter months.

    For another, Qatar's labor system, called "kafala"—which has been compared to slavery, since employers can reject workers from leaving the country or changing jobs—has been decried around the world, and nearly a thousand workers have reportedly died during stadium construction.

    Many have argued that the only logical way Qatar won its bid in the first place, given the heat, relative lack of soccer infrastructure in place and deplorable labor laws, is that bribes were accepted. If multiple officials are found guilty of accepting bribes, there will be plenty of motivation to move the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar. 

Powerful Officials Have Been Indicted and Banned from FIFA

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The three most notable names connected to these indictments are Webb, Warner and Marin.

    Webb was FIFA's vice president and the president of CONCACAF. Warner was a former vice president and former member of FIFA's executive committee. Marin was formerly head of the Brazilian Football Federation and headed the 2014 World Cup committee. 

    FIFA, already in crisis mode, has banned 11 officials, per a statement on the organization's website:

    On the basis of investigations carried out by the investigatory chamber of the Ethics Committee and the latest facts presented by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber of the Ethics Committee, Hans-Joachim Eckert, today banned provisionally 11 individuals from carrying out any football-related activities on a national and international level.

    The decision was taken upon the request of the chairman of the investigatory chamber, Dr Cornel Borbély, based on art. 83 par.1 of the Fifa Code of Ethics.

    “The charges are clearly related to football and are of such a serious nature that it was imperative to take swift and immediate action. The proceedings will follow their course in line with the FIFA Code of Ethics,” said Chairman Eckert.

    The banned individuals are: Jeffrey Webb, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Jack Warner, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel, Jose Maria Marin, Nicolas Leoz, Chuck Blazer and Daryll Warner.

    The question remains as to how deep the U.S. and Swiss probes will run, however, and which current officials may be implicated in corruption as well. We very well could be looking at the tip of the iceberg in this investigation. 

Sepp Blatter's Future Remains Uncertain

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    Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press

    There is enough distrust in FIFA as an organization and enough cynicism given the years of alleged corruption that many people believe—despite the latest string of corruption allegations brought forth against FIFA officials—Sepp Blatter will be voted to a fifth term as the organization's president. 

    Blatter is up for re-election on Friday and is the prohibitive favorite, with only Jordan's Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein as his competition. De Gregorio claimed in his comments on Wednesday that those elections will go on as scheduled. But UEFA and its president, Michel Platini—long an opponent of Blatter's reign—have called for the elections to be postponed in the wake of Wednesday's indictments. 

    If that happens, Blatter's chances of being re-elected will take a major hit. There will be a ton of heat on Blatter as the U.S. and Swiss investigations proceed, especially because both countries will likely cut deals for the officials currently indicted if they implicate higher-up officials, such as Blatter. 

    While the United States is certainly trying to clean up CONCACAF, there is always the feeling in these sort of cases that the smaller fish are reeled in as bait for the bigger fish. The Times report hinted at such an investigative approach:

    The promise that the investigation would continue raised the specter of more arrests, but officials would not comment on whether they were investigating Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president and the man widely regarded as the most powerful person in sports. One federal law enforcement official said Mr. Blatter’s fate would “depend on where the investigation goes from here.”

    “This is the beginning of our effort, not the end,” said Kelly T. Currie, acting United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Indeed, the indictment refers to 25 unnamed co-conspirators, from FIFA officials to a South Africa World Cup bid committee official. “We are looking into individuals and entities in a variety of countries,” said Mr. Currie, who noted that the investigation would also look at financial institutions that handled the tainted money to see if they knew of the fraud.

    Blatter has survived countless corruption inquiries into FIFA in the past, but his future with the organization is perhaps in more doubt than ever.

Conclusion

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    Joe Skipper/Getty Images

    FIFA could be facing a lengthy, comprehensive investigation that ultimately eradicates the mechanisms in place that appear to have allowed institutionalized corruption to run the sport of soccer for decades. Many believe that Blatter has overseen a system of bribery during his term, and they will be hoping this investigation eventually implicates him in wrongdoing. 

    Many feel FIFA needs widespread reform, and never has an investigation given those parties as much hope as the current joint effort from the United States and Switzerland. 

    But FIFA has survived corruption allegations and probes in the past with its major players untouched, and Blatter could very well begin his fifth term on Friday. It's possible the smaller fish will remain implicated and that the bigger fish, including Blatter, will remain unscathed. 

    That would be business as usual for FIFA. And until the organization is indeed forced to reform, it will be the outcome many jaded fans of the beautiful game will be expecting.