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FIFA Officials Arrested on Corruption Charges; Sepp Blatter Isn’t Among Them

The New York Times logo The New York Times 5/27/2015 By MATT APUZZO, MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT, WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and SAM BORDEN
The Justice Department was working with law enforcement agencies in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, to coordinate arrests of several top FIFA members. © Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images The Justice Department was working with law enforcement agencies in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, to coordinate arrests of several top FIFA members. Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president, is among those expected to be indicted by the United States Justice Department. © Luis Acosta/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president, is among those expected to be indicted by the United States Justice Department.

ZURICH — Swiss authorities conducted an extraordinary early-morning operation here Wednesday to arrest several top soccer officials and extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges.

As leaders of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, more than a dozen plain-clothed Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich. They went to the front desk to get room numbers and then proceeded upstairs.

The arrests were carried out peacefully. One FIFA official, Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, was led by the authorities from his room to a side-door exit of the hotel. He was allowed to bring his luggage, which was adorned with FIFA logos.

Jeffrey Webb, left, the president of Concacaf, with FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, during the Concacaf U-17 championships in 2013. © Arnulfo Franco/Associated Press Jeffrey Webb, left, the president of Concacaf, with FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, during the Concacaf U-17 championships in 2013.

The charges, backed by an F.B.I. investigation, allege widespread corruption in FIFA over the past two decades, involving bids for World Cups as well as marketing and broadcast deals.

Several hours after the soccer officials were apprehended at the hotel, Swiss authorities said they had opened criminal cases related to the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups — incidents that, more than any others, encapsulated FIFA’s unusual power dynamic. “In the course of said proceedings,” the Swiss officials said, “electronic data and documents were seized today at FIFA’s head office in Zurich.”

The arrests were a startling blow to FIFA, a multibillion-dollar organization that governs the world’s most popular sport but has been plagued by accusations of bribery for decades.

The inquiry is also a major threat to Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s longtime president who is generally recognized as the most powerful person in sports, though he was not charged. Blatter has for years acted as a de facto head of state. Politicians, star players, national soccer officials and global corporations that want their brands attached to the sport have long genuflected before him.

An election, seemingly pre-ordained to give Mr. Blatter a fifth term as president, is scheduled for Friday. A FIFA spokesman insisted at the news conference that Mr. Blatter was not involved in any alleged wrongdoing and that the election would go ahead as planned.

The Department of Justice indictment names 14 people on charges including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. In addition to senior soccer officials, the indictment also named sports-marketing executives from the United States and South America who are accused of paying more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for media deals associated with major soccer tournaments.

The soccer officials charged are Mr. Li, Jeffrey Webb, Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz.

The FIFA spokesman said that the case was a welcomed opportunity to clean up the organization, and that the group would cooperate with all inquiries.

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.

“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.

United States officials also revealed that four people, including the former FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, and two sports marketing companies had entered guilty pleas. Blazer forfeited $1.9 million when he entered his guilty plea in 2013, and agreed to make a second payment at sentencing.

The case is the most significant yet for Ms. Lynch, who took office last month. She previously served as the United States attorney in Brooklyn, where she supervised the FIFA investigation. Ms. Lynch and F.B.I. Director James Comey were scheduled to hold a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday morning in Brooklyn.

With more than $1.5 billion in reserves, FIFA is as much a global financial conglomerate as a sports organization. With countries around the world competing aggressively to win the bid to host the World Cup, Mr. Blatter has commanded the fealty of anyone who wanted a piece of that revenue stream. He and FIFA have weathered corruption controversies in the past, but none involved charges of federal crimes in United States court.

United States law gives the Justice Department wide authority to bring cases against foreign nationals living abroad, an authority that prosecutors have used repeatedly in international terrorism cases. Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider.

Switzerland’s treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in American courts.

Critics of FIFA point to the lack of transparency regarding executive salaries and resource allocations for an organization that, by its own admission, had revenue of $5.7 billion from 2011 to 2014. Policy decisions are also often taken without debate or explanation, and a small group of officials — known as the executive committee — operates with outsize power. FIFA has for years functioned with little oversight and even less transparency. Alexandra Wrage, a governance consultant who once unsuccessfully attempted to help overhaul FIFA’s methods, famously labeled the organization “byzantine and impenetrable.”

Law enforcement officials said much of the inquiry involves Concacaf, one of the six regional confederations that compose FIFA. Concacaf — which stands for Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football — includes major countries like the United States and Mexico, and also tiny ones like Barbados and Montserrat.

According to the indictment, several international soccer events were tainted by bribes and kickbacks involving media and marketing rights: World Cup qualifiers in the Concacaf region; the Gold Cup, a regional championship tournament; the Concacaf Champions League; the Copa América; and the ASouth American club championship, the Copa Libertadores. The indictment also claims that bribes and kickbacks were found in connection with the selection of the host country for the 2010 World Cup.

Concacaf was led from 1990 to 2011 by Mr. Warner, the longtime head of Trinidad & Tobago’s federation. A key powerbroker in FIFA’s governing executive committee, Mr. Warner had been dogged by accusations of corruption. He was accused of illegally profiting from the resale of tickets to the 2006 World Cup, and of withholding the bonuses of the Trinidad players who participated in that tournament.

Mr. Warner resigned his positions in FIFA, Concacaf and his national association in 2011 amid mounting evidence that he had been part of an attempt to buy the votes of Caribbean federation officials in the 2011 FIFA presidential election. A 2013 Concacaf report also found that he had received tens of millions of dollars in misappropriated funds.

But according to the rules of FIFA at the time, Mr. Warner’s resignation led to the immediate closure of all ethics committee cases against him. “The presumption of innocence is maintained,” FIFA said in a short statement announcing his departure.

Many observers found the bid process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to be flawed from the start: the decision to award two tournaments at once, critics said, would invite vote-trading and other inducements. Since only the 24 members of the executive committee would decide on the hosts, persuading even a few of them might be enough to swing the vote.

Even before the vote took place, two committee members — Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Reynald Temarii of Tahiti — were suspended after an investigation by The Sunday Times caught both men on tape asking for payments in exchange for their support. It was later revealed by England’s bid chief that four ExCo members had solicited bribes from him for their votes; one asked for $2.5 million, while another, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, requested a knighthood.

As new accounts of bribery continued to emerge — a whistleblower who worked for the Qatar bid team claimed that several African officials were paid $1.5 million each to support Qatar — FIFA in 2012 started an investigation of the bid process. It was led by a former United States attorney, Michael J. Garcia, who spent nearly two years compiling a report. That report, however, has never been made public; instead, the top judge on the ethics committee, the German Joachim Eckert, released a summary of the report. In it, he declared that while violations of the code of ethics had occurred, they had not affected the integrity of the vote.

Within hours, Garcia had criticised Eckert’s summary as incorrect and incomplete, charging that it contained “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts.” Nonetheless, FIFA moved quickly to embrace the report’s absolution of the bid process. Qatar World Cup officials said the review had upheld “the integrity and quality of our bid,” And Russia’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, told reporters, “I hope we will not have talk about this again.”

The issue was, in fact, raised against Wednesday. When pressed by reporters at the news conference, Mr. de Gregorio repeatedly said that FIFA would not consider reopening the bid process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Correction: May 27, 2015

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the year of the FIFA presidential election that Jack Warner was suspected of attempting to influence. It was 2011, not 2010.



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