As the leaders of FIFA gathered in Zurich for what was expected to be the election of Sepp Blatter to a fifth term as president, Swiss authorities conducted an unprecedented raid early Wednesday morning, arresting several top soccer officials with plans to extradite them to the United States to face federal corruption charges.
Plainclothes officers roamed the five-star Baur au Lac hotel, rounding up prominent members of soccer’s governing body, which sets international rules and oversees World Cup competitions. Blatter was not among those arrested, although he is reportedly still the subject of an ongoing investigation. FIFA plans to proceed with the election on Friday.
“We’re struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did,” an unnamed law enforcement official told the New York Times. “It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized.”
A 47-count indictment unsealed by the Justice Department charges 14 men with racketeering, bribery, money laundering and fraud. Four of the accused have already pleaded guilty. The Times identified the soccer officials as Jeffrey Webb, Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz.
Sports-marketing executives Alejandro Burzaco, Aaron Davidson, Hugo Jinkis and Mariano Jinkis were expected to be charged, according to the Times. José Margulies was charged as an intermediary who facilitated illegal payments.
According to the Justice Department, “U.S. and South American sports marketing executives” are alleged “to have systematically paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments.”
Just how did this extraordinary scene come about? The Times notes:
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.
FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) has operated under a cloud of suspicion and bribery accusations for decades under Blatter, but the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar have drawn increased scrutiny. Blatter has always managed to survive, but the round-up Wednesday was still stunning for the multibillion-dollar organization that runs the world’s most popular sport. At a news conference Wednesday morning in Zurich, a FIFA spokesman said that the case offered the organization an opportunity to purge itself and that it would cooperate with the investigations.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”
The arrests come with the Women’s World Cup looming June 6 in Canada. But first there is the matter of whether Blatter will be re-elected, as he has been so easily in the past because of the power he wields. FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio said at Wednesday’s news conference that Blatter is not involved in wrongdoing and the Times reports that he is not expected to be indicted.
While saying that FIFA “welcomes the process” and pledges to cooperate fully, de Gregorio acknowledged the obvious.
“It is certainly a difficult moment for us.”
Given FIFA’s reputation and the ease with which it has done business in the past, the arrests were greeted with joy and, of course, sarcasm.
— BreakingNews.ie (@breakingnewsie) May 27, 2015
There can't be a more corrupt, deplorable organisation on earth than FIFA. The house of cards is falling. Time for change!
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) May 27, 2015
FIFA officials arrested this morning. One thing I can't quite get to grips with… pic.twitter.com/v5MPrS9ahH
— Paddy Power (@paddypower) May 27, 2015
This is a breaking news story; check back for further details.
Des Bieler contributed to this report.