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.
And 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 US$1 million. But South Africa had a sweeter deal, offering US$10 million to a group that Warner controlled, prosecutors said. He voted for South Africa.
South Africa got the 2010 World Cup. And Warner got his US$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, US officials said Wednesday as they announced a sweeping indictment against 14 soccer officials and marketing executives who they said had corrupted the sport through two decades of shadowy dealing and US$150 million in bribes. Authorities described international soccer in terms normally reserved for Mafia families or drug cartels, and brought charges under racketeering laws usually applied to such criminal organisations.
Hours after Swiss authorities arrived unannounced at a Zurich hotel and arrested top Fifa officials early Wednesday morning, the Justice Department and prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York forcefully declared that their investigation had only just begun and pledged to rid the international soccer organisation of systemic corruption.
“These individuals and organisations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organisation overseeing organised soccer worldwide,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who supervised the investigation from its earliest stages, when she was the US 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, US 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 organised crime by the Eurasian Joint Organised Crime Task Force in the FBI’s New York office, according to people with knowledge of the case’s origins. Authorities soon realised the potential scope of an investigation into the sporting world’s most powerful, secretive organisation.
“Once we really began to peel back the layers of the investigation,” it became clear that corruption had been rampant for years, Lynch, who was the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn at the time, recalled in a telephone interview. “We always knew it was going to be a very large case.”
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’s Eastern District.
Lynch compared the Fifa investigation to cases involving Mafia members in Rome or Sicily. 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.
But US authorities were adamant that they were not finished. The indictment represented “the beginning of our effort, not the end,” said Kelly Currie, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Neither he nor Lynch would comment on whether they were investigating Blatter. But one federal law enforcement official said Blatter’s fate would “depend on where the investigation goes from here.”
Some of the means used to hide the payments were intricate, the indictment says: using fake consulting contracts; sending money through associates working in the financial industry; creating shell companies in tax havens; hiding foreign bank accounts; using safe-deposit boxes; and “bulk cash smuggling,” prosecutors wrote.
Others were more straightforward. When Fifa was considering which country would host the 2006 World Cup, Warner sent a relative to a Paris hotel room to collect a briefcase filled with cash in US$10 000 stacks from a South African bid-committee official, according to the indictment.
In 2011, an associate running for Fifa president wired about US$360 000 to an account controlled by Warner, who, in turn, arranged for the associate to give a stump speech to Caribbean soccer officials at a Hyatt Regency in Trinidad.
When the speech concluded, Warner told the officials that a “gift” awaited them in a Hyatt conference room. The gift: envelopes containing US$40 000 in cash from the associate, one for each of the member organisations.
The day after the cash payments were distributed, Warner called the Caribbean officials to a meeting, angered that one of them had alerted a higher-up to the payments. “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou,” he said, according to the indictment. “If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.” Even facilitating the bribes was lucrative: One man who helped funnel money between officials and those seeking officials’ favour said in 2014 that the charge for such services was a US$150 000 annual fee and a 2% commission per payment.
Prosecutors built their case with help from a former Fifa executive and New York resident, Chuck Blazer, who secretly pleaded guilty in federal court in 2013. Blazer, who was close to Warner, forfeited US$1,9 million when he entered his guilty plea and agreed to make a second payment at sentencing. Blazer’s lawyer, Eric Corngold, declined to comment.
Prosecutors also went after Warner’s sons, Daryan and Daryll , filing a case against them in 2012. In 2013, each son pleaded guilty: Daryll to wire fraud and illegally structuring financial transactions, and Daryan to the same structuring charge along with wire fraud and money laundering. Daryan forfeited US$1,1 million and, like Blazer, agreed to make another payment at sentencing.
José Hawilla, who owned an influential Brazilian sports-marketing group, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges late last year, and agreed to pay US$151 million. Each of those related cases was sealed until Wednesday.
In New York and Washington, it had been clear for many months that indictments were inevitable, two law enforcement officials said. The annual meeting in Zurich provided the perfect setting. Rather than seek warrants and extradition hearings in several countries, the authorities could wait until most of the suspects were in one place. Federal investigators and career prosecutors proposed the time and location and, after international lawyers at the Justice Department worked out the details with the Swiss authorities, Lynch gave final approval, the officials said.
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.
“Fifa welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football,” the organisation said in a statement.
Charges were also made against the sports-marketing executives Alejandro Burzaco, Aaron Davidson, Hugo Jinkis and Mariano Jinkis. Authorities also charged José Margulies as an intermediary who facilitated illegal payments.
It will most likely be months before the people arrested overseas will appear in Brooklyn federal court, given the length of normal extradition proceedings.
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.
For Lynch, the announcement of the charges capping the long investigation was bittersweet. She was traveling in South Africa when the country learned it would host the 2010 World Cup. Citizens were ecstatic with the hope that the world’s most famous soccer 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.” — New York Times.