Nearly two months have passed since a stunning series of arrests in a five-star hotel in Switzerland and a press conference in Brooklyn on the morning of May 27 made public what some in global soccer circles had long suspected: U.S. law enforcement is going after FIFA.
World soccer’s governing body continued to try to reform itself this week, with the announcement that a special election to replace its embattled president, Sepp Blatter, will be held next Feb. 26. Blatter explained the decision in a Monday press conference in Zurich, where six of his former colleagues remain in detention while they fight extradition to the U.S.
Back on this side of the Atlantic, the criminal investigation into FIFA has entered a new phase, the outcome of which could determine whether U.S. prosecutors make good on their predictions of more indictments. Last week, the first FIFA executive arrested in Zurich agreed to come to the U.S.
Jeffrey Webb – former president of CONCACAF, the FIFA umbrella organization that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean – pleaded not guilty in a Brooklyn courtroom Saturday to charges including soliciting bribes before awarding lucrative marketing and media deals for soccer tournaments in the Americas. Webb’s lawyer declined to comment this week.
If Webb – a FIFA vice-president and member of the organization’s powerful executive committee before his arrest – decides to cooperate with federal prosecutors, his arrival could be the first step toward a new wave of indictments.
But if Webb continues to fight the charges, or if he doesn’t have information that helps prosecutors build cases against other FIFA executives, it could be a harbinger of future struggles as the Department of Justice seeks to expand its criminal probe.
While Attorney General Loretta Lynch used terms like “systemic” and “deep-rooted” to describe the corruption she said investigators uncovered in FIFA, the indictments so far focus primarily on alleged criminal activity in North America, South America and the Caribbean. In Webb, prosecutors now may have access to another member of FIFA’s inner circle who could have information about operations in other parts of the globe.
The six remaining FIFA officials in Switzerland are still fighting extradition, and they could be there for a while. While Swiss law enforcement agreed to apprehend the FIFA executives for U.S. law enforcement, it will be the Swiss judicial system that rules on extradition requests.
Switzerland has historically been reluctant to extradite people charged with fiscal crimes to America. (This is why financier Marc Rich fled to Zurich in the 1980s.)
“Most extraditions take time anyway, but the Swiss-U.S. extradition process is just more complicated and cumbersome than many of the agreements that the U.S. enjoys with other countries,” said Michael Miller, a federal white-collar criminal defense attorney and managing partner of New York’s Steptoe & Johnson law firm.
“Historically, the Swiss, with their approach to bank secrecy, have had a view that they wanted to be a country that operated independent of the long arm of U.S. law,” Miller said.
Exactly how far that “long arm” can reach should become clear in the next few months, Miller said. While allegations in court documents by former American soccer powerbroker Chuck Blazer of bribes paid for World Cup votes have drawn the most attention, the bulk of the cases against those arrested so far deal with alleged bribes and kickbacks involving lesser soccer tournaments, like the CONCACAF Gold Cup, currently being played in the U.S.
At the press conference announcing the charges in May, Kelly Currie, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, emphasized that he expected more indictments.
“This is the beginning of our effort, not the end,” Currie said. “We look forward to continuing to work with our international partners and any others who are willing to work with us … in ridding global soccer from this type of corruption.”
Blatter is said to be a target of the government’s investigation, with the FIFA executive committee’s controversial decisions to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar also being scrutinized. While American law grants prosecutors wide authority to pursue charges even if the connection to America is tangential – like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider – Currie and his colleagues could encounter challenges building cases that don’t involve CONCACAF, which was headquartered in Miami, or focus on activities that occurred on foreign soil.
“Big picture, the government has got to really wrestle with whether it’s reached beyond the scope of its jurisdictional limits,” Miller said. “The question to answer will be, ‘Has the government tried to tackle a global problem with U.S. statutes that just don’t apply?'”