NEW YORK — Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and other U.S. law enforcement officials launched a sweeping effort to clean up corruption in world soccer that she termed “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” Wednesday, indicting 14 influential figures in the globe’s most popular sport on racketeering and bribery charges.
In a series of remarkable scenes, FBI agents raided international offices in Miami Beach, while Swiss authorities working with the United States escorted some of the game’s highest dignitaries from a five-star hotel in Zurich, where they were meeting, and detained them for extradition.
Officials from the Justice Department, FBI and IRS jointly announced the indictments of nine officials from soccer’s world governing body, known as FIFA, and five sports executives at a news conference at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York. The 47-count indictment spelled out how $150 million in bribes were allegedly solicited by FIFA officials for vote-rigging to send events to certain countries or steer business to various companies.
Officials emphasized this is just the start of their investigation. Among the subjects of ongoing scrutiny, the law enforcement officials said, are banking institutions through which bribes flowed and sponsors who may have participated in alleged kickback schemes. The indictments contain 75 references to “co-conspirators.”
“The beautiful game was hijacked,” FBI director James Comey said. “The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world. Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”
In colorful detail, the indictments described officials at the very top of the game engaging in more than two decades of relentless corruption, including an alleged $10 million bribe to award the 2010 World Cup to South Africa with that government’s cooperation and a FIFA official passing out envelopes stuffed with $40,000 in cash to buy votes in the 2011 FIFA presidential election. It also outlined bribes for lucrative media and marketing rights for World Cup qualifiers and other events. According to Lynch, one FIFA official alone received $10 million in bribes.
U.S. officials said they are working in close cooperation with the office of the Swiss attorney general, which announced its own related though separate criminal investigation into suspicion of money laundering, criminal mismanagement and “unjust enrichment” around FIFA’s controversial awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Swiss authorities seized electronic data and documents from FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
Rumors of corruption have swirled around the awarding of the World Cup to both countries; last year the Times of London reported to a parliamentary committee that it had information that Russia won the bid partly by giving away artwork from its state collection. A FIFA internal report on the bid process written by former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia was suppressed, and Garcia has disavowed FIFA’s summary of his work.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich expressed unhappiness with the investigation, calling it “another case of illegal extraterritorial application of U.S. laws” in a statement on the ministry Web site. “We hope this will in no way be used to tarnish the international football organization in general and its decisions.”
Officials from FIFA, the French abbreviation for Federation Internationale de Football Association, were rousted from their rooms by Swiss agents at the luxurious Baur Au Lac hotel on the banks of the Zurich canal, where they had congregated for their annual meeting. They were taken away in police cars while at least one hotel staffer tried to shield the proceedings by holding up a white bed-linen.
According to U.S. law enforcement, among those in custody were FIFA vice president and executive committee member Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, FIFA vice president and executive committee member Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, FIFA executive committee member-elect Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, and officials of the Nicaraguan, Venezuelan and Brazilian football organizations. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of racketeering.
IRS criminal investigation chief Richard Weber said at the news conference, in which officials seem to vie for the best sound bite, “This is really the World Cup of fraud.”
The FIFA annual congress is expected to reelect its 79-year-old president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, to a fifth term Friday with little opposition, though Blatter appeared Wednesday to lose the backing of traditional football power Brazil, which called for the vote to be postponed.
The Swiss-born Blatter has been the head of FIFA since 1998 and wields enormous international influence, given his control over the immensely popular World Cup and its related revenues, which in 2014 amounted to $4 billion. Blatter is not named in the indictments, and U.S. officials declined to comment on whether he is a subject of their ongoing investigation.
Blatter said in a statement that he and FIFA are cooperating with authorities. “As unfortunate as these events are, it should be clear that we welcome the actions and investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football,” it read.
The U.S. indictments allege a pattern of chronic corruption in FIFA that dates back 24 years. Among the charges are that an unnamed FIFA official arranged to pay members $40,000 apiece simply to hear his pitch to become FIFA president in 2011 at a meeting in a Hyatt Regency in Trinidad and Tobago.
The payments were allegedly coordinated by former FIFA vice president Jack Warner, a member from Trinidad and Tobago who resigned in 2011 and is among those indicted. Warner is quoted telling the bribed FIFA members, “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou. If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.”
They also allege that Warner collected a bribe for arranging a soccer event by sending a member of his family to Paris to collect a briefcase packed with cash in $10,000 bundles. Warner issued a statement Wednesday denying the charges.
However, at the same time it unsealed the indictments, U.S. law enforcement announced that four individuals and two corporate defendants already have pleaded guilty to charges as part of the investigation. They included Warner’s sons Daryll and Daryan Warner, as well as Brazilian sports marketer Jose Hawilla and former FIFA official Chuck Blazer of the United States.
Blazer’s guilty plea and apparent cooperation with U.S. law enforcement seem to have been the most important building block in the investigation — and will have the largest ramifications for other FIFA officials who have something to fear from the U.S. and Swiss investigations. Blazer was for many years the most powerful American in soccer, a member of the FIFA executive committee from 1996 to 2013 and the former general secretary of CONCACAF, the regional federation of FIFA that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Blazer admitted to 10 counts of tax evasion, racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. Contained in the information documents against him are descriptions of how bribes were solicited and distributed at the highest committee-member levels of FIFA, including “bulk cash smuggling.”
The Blazer documents describe a $1 million bribe paid by a Moroccan official to a FIFA executive committee member in hopes of securing the 1998 World Cup and a series of bribes to steer media and marketing rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Blazer was also involved in negotiations to accept bribes from Morocco and South Africa over the 2010 World Cup site.
Steven Goff in New York, Karoun Demirjian in Moscow and Michael E. Miller, Fred Barbash, Brian Murphy, William Branigin, Cindy Boren and Marissa Payne in Washington contributed to this report.
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Graphic: Breaking down the charges