FIFA caught offside as US tackles global graft with penalties in mind

DOJ's decision to indict FIFA officials part of country's longstanding effort to stamp out unfair business practices

With its charges levied against FIFA officials Wednesday, the United States sought to expand global efforts to stamp out financial corruption in soccer, whose governing body has been dogged for years by allegations of corruption and fraud.

The U.S. Justice Department has named nine soccer officials and five media and marketing executives in an investigation it says involves extensive racketeering and money-laundering schemes as well as over $150 million in bribes paid over two decades.

The scene of Swiss authorities arresting individuals at the behest of U.S. investigators at the annual FIFA Congress in Zurich on Wednesday may have seemed an extraordinary spectacle, but U.S. authorities insisted it was consistent with longstanding efforts to curb global corruption.

“This is a global investigation, and we live in a global marketplace: The world is not insular to a particular country any longer,” said acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York Kelly T. Currie. “And so, virtually any international business transaction crosses borders, and this is really no different.”

Legal experts closely monitoring the case said the day’s events — although notable because of the organization targeted — did not signal a significant change in priorities.

“The Department of Justice and the U.S. government have been focused on anti-corruption since the Watergate era,” said Lucian Dervan, associate professor of law at Southern Illinois University School of Law.

Andy Spalding, associate professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, agreed, saying the U.S. “has sought to promote an anti-bribery norm around the world — partly business interests, partly political interests.”

“I think that still applies today,” he added.

Still, Spalding noted a dearth of leadership and efforts to root out similar problems elsewhere.

“The difficult question is not why the U.S., but why not anyone else,” said Spalding. “It is not optimal for the United States to be taking the lead,” he said of efforts to punish alleged corruption by FIFA officials, “but that it has is indicative of an international vacuum in anti-corruption enforcement.”

A key figure who spurred the DOJ’s decision to take jurisdiction of the case is Chuck Blazer, an American member of FIFA’s executive committee from 1996 to 2013 who, according to the unsealed documents released Wednesday, pleaded guilty in 2013 to corruption charges along with three others.

Blazer and the others have since been cooperating with the FBI as it builds its case.

With Blazer’s help, the U.S. investigation expanded into the two FIFA regional federations that make up North and South America — CONCACAF and CONMEBOL.  

Each individual indicted Wednesday is either connected to those federations or the countries in which they operate. Those indicted and facing extradition include Jeffrey Webb, the current president of CONCACAF and head of the Cayman Island Football Association, and Jack Warner, former president of CONCACAF and a former FIFA vice president.

According to the Justice Department, Warner solicited $10 million in bribes from the South African government to host the 2010 World Cup. Warner directed a number of co-conspirators to arrange the payment, which was eventually sent from a FIFA account in Switzerland to a Bank of America account in New York that Warner controlled, the indictment said.

But those allegations, and others like it, may just be the start, the DOJ indicated Wednesday.

“Let’s be clear: This is the beginning of our effort, not the end,” Currie said.

U.S. officials deflected questions about whether FIFA’s powerful head Sepp Blatter was a target in the investigation. Blatter is seeking a fifth term as president of the governing body but is deeply unpopular among soccer fans.

Amid the U.S. indictments released Wednesday, Swiss authorities indicated that they were separately investigating the processes by which the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host country sites were secured. The United States narrowly lost out on hosting the latter competition to Qatar, whose securing of the tournament has been overshadowed by concerns over alleged human rights abuses of its migrant labor force.

According to SIU law professor Dervan, part of the reason the DOJ may have launched its investigation into FIFA is because of the widely held belief that corruption influenced the body’s decision to award Qatar the World Cup — thus negatively impacting U.S. commerce and legal norms.

“One of the reasons why I think the Department of Justice is interested in this is that they believe the actions of FIFA did have an adverse impact on the U.S. … and its economic interests.”

With additional reporting by Reuters

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