Nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives, including seven who were arrested in Switzerland, are indicted on corruption charges.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (MAY 27, 2015) (REUTERS) – Seven of the most powerful figures in global soccer faced extradition to the United States on corruption charges after their arrest on Wednesday (May 27) in Switzerland, where authorities also announced a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups.
The world’s most popular sport was plunged into turmoil after U.S. and Swiss authorities announced separate inquiries into the activities of the game’s powerful governing body, FIFA.
U.S. authorities said nine soccer officials and five sports media and promotions executives faced corruption charges involving more than $150 million (USD) in bribes. In pursuit of the U.S. case, Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials who are now awaiting extradition to the United States.
U.S. officials gave details of a case in which they said they exposed complex money laundering schemes, found millions of dollars in untaxed incomes and tens of millions in offshore accounts held by FIFA officials.
At a New York press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said authorities were seeking the arrest of other people in connection with the case.
One of those indicted, former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner of Trinidad, solicited $10 million in bribes from the South African government to host the 2010 World Cup, the Justice Department said. Warner issued a statement saying he is innocent of any charges.
Those arrested did not include Sepp Blatter, the Swiss head of FIFA, but included several just below him in the hierarchy of sport’s wealthiest body. Lynch said the U.S. was not charging Blatter at this time.
Of the 14 indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice, seven FIFA officials, including Vice-President Jeffrey Webb, were being held in Zurich. Four people and two corporate defendants had already pleaded guilty to various charges, the department said.
“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. This Department of Justice is determined to end these practices; to root out corruption; and to bring wrongdoers to justice. The 14 defendants charged in the indictment we are unsealing today include high-ranking officials of FIFA, the international organization responsible for regulating and promoting soccer; leaders of regional and other governing bodies under the FIFA umbrella; and sports marketing executives who, according to the indictment, paid millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments. The 47-count indictment against these individuals includes charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies spanning two decades,” Lynch told a press conference in New York on Wednesday.
“In short, 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, one of the most popular sports around the globe,” she added.
The Miami, Florida, headquarters of CONCACAF – the soccer federation that governs North America, Central America and the Caribbean – were being searched on Wednesday, the DoJ said.
The FIFA officials appeared to have walked into a trap set by U.S. and Swiss authorities. The arrests were made at dawn at a plush Zurich hotel, the Baur au Lac, where FIFA officials are staying before a vote this week that is expected to anoint Blatter for a fifth term in office. Suites at the hotel cost up to $4,000 a night.
FIFA called the arrests a “difficult moment” but said Blatter would seek another term as FIFA head as planned and the upcoming World Cups would go ahead as intended.
Separate from the U.S. investigation, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened their own criminal proceedings against unidentified people on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar.
Data and documents were seized from computers at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters, the Swiss prosecutors said.
Officials said that following the arrests, accounts at several banks in Switzerland had been blocked.
The U.S. Department of Justice named those arrested in its case as: Webb, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, another FIFA Vice-President, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel and José Maria Marin.
An authoritative source said their extradition could take years if it was contested.
The DoJ said the defendants included U.S. and South American sports marketing executives alleged to have paid and agreed to pay “well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments”.
“As we have indicated this racketeering enterprise impacted the United States in a variety of ways. CONCACAF’s headquarters has been in the United States, first in New York, and then in Florida for the entire time period at charge. One of the banking institutions and the ways these moneys were funneled passed through the United States. Many of the people involved who are charged in this indictment either reside in the United States during some of the time they conducted meetings regarding their schemes in the United States, so there is a large variety of impact regarding the United States. So this is a global investigation and we live in a global market place. The world is not insular to a particular country any longer, so virtually any international business transaction crosses borders and this is not any different,” explained Kelly Currie, the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York.
“To date what we have done for those who have pled guilty is that the funds that they are forfeiting are going to be set aside and reserved for what would be court ordered restitution to the victims here. I think we can anticipate as we go forward in our investigation that is the lens we will view all other defendants and other forfeited properties that we are attempting to obtain,” he added.
The guilty pleas were those of Charles Blazer, a former U.S. representative on FIFA’s executive committee, and José Hawilla, owner of the Traffic Group, a sports marketing firm, and two of his companies.
The international governing body of football collects billions of dollars in revenue, mostly from sponsorship and television rights for World Cups.
It has been dogged by reports of corruption, which it says it investigates itself, but until now it has escaped major criminal cases in any country.