Sunday 17 November 2019

FBI unearths '24-year scheme to corrupt soccer'

FBI agents carry boxes from the headquarters of CONCACAF after it was raided in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo: Getty Images
FBI agents carry boxes from the headquarters of CONCACAF after it was raided in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo: Getty Images
FIFA President Sepp Blatter gestures as he attends a news conference after a meeting of the FIFA executive committee in Zurich in this September 26, 2014 file picture. Swiss authorities have opened criminal proceedings against individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA soccer World Cups in Russia and Qatar. Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann/Files
Presenter Fernanda Lima alongside FIFA President Sepp Blatter during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Draw at the Costa Do Sauipe, Bahia, Brazil.
A member of staff walks past the logo of soccer's international governing body FIFA at their headquarters in Zurich. Photo: Reuters

Edward Malnick in Zurich

It was, as one former FA official put it, an "amazing" turn of events that "the scene of the crime" in the run-up to the votes on the 2018 and 2022 world cups should have been the location of the first in a series of arrests of FIFA officials almost five years later.

At 6am yesterday morning, the five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Zurich, the site of intense lobbying for votes in December 2010, was visited by Swiss police acting on behalf of the US authorities.

Seven men were detained in total at the hotel - among them Jeffrey Webb, the FIFA vice-president, Eduardo Li, a FIFA executive committee member from Costa Rica, and Eugenio Figueredo, president of South American football governing body Conmebol from Uruguay.

They were among 14 people charged with offences including racketeering, wire fraud and money-laundering conspiracies, as part of what the US Department of Justice described as "a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer". The scope of this investigation, however, went far beyond the confines of the controversial awarding of the 2018 and 2022 world cups to Russia and Qatar, in Zurich.

Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, said the case against the 14 defendants showed "corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States".

The officials were charged with conspiring to solicit and receive "well over $150m in bribes and kickbacks" over 24 years, since 1991, in return for their support for sports marketing executives attempting to secure highly lucrative contracts to sell the media and marketing rights to major events and tournaments.

In a 164-page indictment, the FBI set out in its case against the men it says "abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks".

It details the extraordinary levels of alleged corruption and tells how FIFA members went to extreme lengths to hide their bribes and payments.

One official had payments directed to builders who were installing a swimming pool at his home while another received an expensive painting from a New York art gallery for his co-operation.

The indictment paints a damning picture of the life of corruption FIFA executives are alleged to have led. The FBI director James Comey said: "Undisclosed payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA."

But while the six chapters in the FBI's document lay bare the alleged corruption of some of FIFA's most senior members, the acting US Attorney Kelly Currie had a warning for those whose names have not yet appeared on his charge sheet: "Let me be clear: this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation." In the early Nineties, Jack Warner, the then president of the Caribbean Football Union and former secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation, set up "numerous" accounts and companies "in which he mingled his personal assets" and those of the Fifa bodies with which he was associated, according to the indictment filed in the US.

The US authorities say it was during this period he began to seek and accept bribes in relation to his official work, including his part in the selection of the 1998 and 2010 World Cup hosts as a member of the FIFA executive committee. He also began to divert funds from the CFU, FIFA and Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), of which he was president, into accounts that enabled him to use the money for his personal benefit. Among his purchases was a home in Miami in 2005, which was registered in the name of a family member.

At the same time as Warner's rise to power, various officials from CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation, began soliciting bribes from Jose Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing conglomerate based in Brazil.

Hawilla agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in bribes for results such as the renewal of his firm's contract to sell commercial rights for the Copa America tournament.

He is said to have used a series of "sophisticated money laundering techniques", often relying on intermediaries, to pay Nicolas Leoz, CONMEBOL's president, and other officials.

Traffic's relationship with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL grew into the 2000s, while alongside their activities rival firms such as Full Play were also paying bribes and kickbacks in exchange for contracts. Using the American financial system to make and receive payments became "one of the central methods", US prosecutors said.

It has also been alleged that corruption occurred in relation to the awarding of World Cups and the election of association officials.(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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