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FIFA officers arrested in racketeering probe

The U.S. government launched a corruption attack on soccer's global governing body yesterday, pulling FIFA executives out of a luxury Zurich hotel to face racketeering charges and raiding regional offices in Miami.

Swiss officials also invaded FIFA headquarters in Zurich, seizing records and computers to investigate whether the decisions to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar were rigged.

Scandals and rumors of corruption have dogged FIFA during the 17-year reign of its president, Sepp Blatter. He was not named in either investigation. He is scheduled to stand Friday for re-election to a fifth term, and the organization said the vote would go ahead. FIFA ruled out a revote of the World Cup bids won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

"This is the beginning of our effort, not the end," acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie said during a news conference in Brooklyn, where the indictment was handed up Wednesday. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the corruption dated to 1991 and included $110 million in bribes to officials to bring the 2016 Copa America tournament to the United States.

Charges include racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. They portray an organization riddled with greedy officials who demanded payment in exchange for ensuring highly sought contracts were awarded to sports marketing companies seeking media and marketing rights to FIFA-run tournaments. Swiss police arrested a total of seven soccer officials at the request of American prosecutors.

FIFA officials named in the 47-count indictment include vice president Jeffrey Webb; Julio Rocha, the organization's development officer; Eduardo Li, an executive committee member-elect; Eugenia Figueredo, a vice president and executive committee member; and Jose Maria Marin, a member of the organizing committee for the Olympic soccer tournaments. They were arrested and expected to face extradition to the United States.

"This really is the World Cup of fraud, and today we are issuing FIFA a red card," IRS Criminal Investigations Chief Richard Weber said.

The documents portray former FIFA vice president Jack Warner, one of the accused, as a key figure. It said Warner set up and controlled numerous bank accounts in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere, and mingled his personal funds with those of FIFA-controlled bodies. Warner turned himself in to Trinidad police shortly after they issued an arrest warrant at the request of U.S. authorities. He has been released on $2.5-million bail.

"We welcome the actions and the 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," Blatter said in a statement.

The organization said it was cooperating fully with the investigation.

Other defendants include two sports marketing companies, sports marketing executives, and soccer officials from FIFA-controlled entities in the Caribbean, South America and Central America.

At the news conference, Justice officials handed out a binder of documents outlining the allegations. The documents describe how FIFA officials allegedly received envelopes packed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and demanded bribes in exchange for issuing contracts and other favors. Some of the defendants arranged multimillion-dollar wire transfers from accounts of the accused sports executives' corporations to soccer groups in exchange for programming contracts, according to documents.

"Among other things, Warner began to solicit and accept bribes in connection with his official duties, including the election of the host nation for the World Cups held in 1998 [France] and 2010 [South Africa], which he participated in as a member of the FIFA executive committee," the indictment said.

FBI Director James B. Comey said that the conspirators had taken a level playing field and tilted it in favor of whomever was willing to pay.

"The game, according to the allegations in this indictment, was hijacked," Comey said.

With John Riley


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