13 arrested in FIFA probe
Justice Department vows today’s opening salvo just the first steps in rooting out corruption
By Shane Nicholson
An investigation by the FBI, the Justice Department (DOJ) and the IRS resulted in the arrests of nine FIFA officials and four executives of sports marketing companies Wednesday morning.
The DOJ says the officials were arrested on suspicion of receiving bribes of more than $150 million over the past two decades. The 47 count indictment spanning 161 pages includes racketeering and federal corruption charges.
“This really is the World Cup of fraud,” said Richard Weber, head of the IRS criminal investigation team. “Today we are issuing FIFA a red card.”
FBI Director James Comey said that today’s actions were the result of years of corruption running rife through the world’s governing body and its regional federations, including U.S. overseer CONCACAF.
“This may be the way thing are,” he said at a press conference with DOJ and IRS officials in New York Wednesday morning, “but this is not the way they have to be.”
He continued, “This hijacking is being met with a very aggressive prosecutorial response in order to change behavior and send a message.”
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch took to the podium and accused officials at all levels of the game of corrupting the very nature of the sport and abdicating their responsibilities to fans the world over.
“Many of the individuals and organizations we will describe today were entrusted with keeping soccer open and accessible to all,” she said. “They held important responsibilities at every level, from building soccer fields for children in developing countries to organizing the World Cup. They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest, and protect the integrity of the game.
“Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves.”
Officials said the investigation was made possible due to the fact that many of the individuals and entities involved utilized U.S.-based addresses and bank accounts to conduct business, including CONCACAF which was formerly housed in New York and now has its headquarters in Florida.
“Beginning in 1991, two generations of soccer officials, including the then-presidents of two regional soccer confederations under FIFA (CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the South American federation) used their positions of trust within their respective organizations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments,” Lynch said.
“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.
“They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”
“This is the beginning of our effort, not the end,” said acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Kelly T. Currie. “We are looking into individuals and entities in a variety of countries.”
The indictment lists a further 25 unnamed co-conspirators in addition to the 14 officials named this morning, detailing corruption related to World Cup bids, marketing and television contracts and regional projects carried out by various federations.
Swiss police worked in conjunction with U.S. officials in carrying out a Wednesday morning raid as officials arrived at a hotel ahead of FIFA’s general meeting. Plain clothes officers were seen leading out officials through a side-door of the hotel carrying their FIFA-branded luggage.
The Swiss police also confirmed that documents were seized from FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich as a part of the investigation.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter is not currently a target of the investigation according to officials. However, his bid to be re-elected to a fifth term on Friday may have been thrown off track by Wednesday’s events. Prime backers of Blatter including current CONCACAF President and FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb were among those arrested.
Webb was recently re-elected to his post unopposed at a federation congress which saw speeches calling Blatter the “father of football” and comparing the FIFA supremo to Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.
Blatter has avoided travel to the U.S. since at least 2011 reportedly under fear that he would be arrested in relation to the FBI investigation. One government official was quoted by The New York Times as saying that interest in Blatter is an ongoing concern and that action related to the FIFA head would “depend on where the investigation goes from here.”
In a statement Wednesday morning the governing body said, “FIFA welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrong doing in football.”
The organization also said that it would not be reopening the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in light of today’s events.