WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials have thrown some serious red cards at the world soccer organization, charging nine top FIFA officials and five corporate executives with conspiracy and corruption for actions that span several decades.
In a 47-count indictment unsealed early Wednesday morning, U.S. prosecutors charged the defendants with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, among other offenses, in connection with what the Justice Department called a “24-year scheme.”
The stunning indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn names high-ranking officials of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization that regulates and promotes soccer worldwide, as well as leading officials of other soccer governing bodies.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, citing “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.”
Lynch served until late last month as the Brooklyn-based U.S. attorney, quietly overseeing the investigation that first secured several sealed guilty pleas in late 2013. The guilty pleas were made public for the first time Wednesday, along with the other indictments.
Overnight, as part of the investigation, Swiss officials arrested seven of the indicted individuals in Zurich, while federal law enforcement officers early Wednesday morning conducted a search at CONCACAF headquarters in Miami, Fla.
CONCACAF is the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, the continental confederation under FIFA, headquartered in the United States.
Separately, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General announced that it has opened criminal proceedings against unnamed person in relation to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process.
“FIFA welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football,” the organization stated in a release, adding that “we are pleased to see that the investigation is being energetically pursued for the good of football and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken.”
The guilty pleas of four individual and two corporate defendants were also unsealed Wednesday.
Those pleading guilty include Charles Blazer, the former general secretary of CONCACAF, and Jose Hawilla, owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing corporation headquartered in Brazil. Two of Hawilla’s companies, Traffic Sports International Inc., and Traffic Sports USA Inc., which is based in Florida, also pleaded guilty.
The indicted soccer officials are charged with conspiracy involving the solicitation and receipt of more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for officially backing the sports marketing executives who made the illegal payments.
“After decades of what the indictment alleges to be brazen corruption, organized international soccer needs a new start, a new chance for its governing institutions to provide honest oversight and support of a sport that is beloved across the world, “ acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Kelly T. Currie said in a statement.
Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner, the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, the continental confederation under FIFA headquartered in the United States, are among the soccer officials charged with racketeering and bribery offenses.
The defendants also include U.S. and South American sports marketing executives who are alleged to have paid bribes and kickbacks to obtain profitable media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments, according to the Justice Department.
FIFA is composed of 209 member associations, each representing organized soccer in a particular nation or territory. FIFA also recognizes six continental confederations that aid in overseeing soccer in various parts of the world.
The organizations make money by managing the media and marketing rights associated with soccer events and tournaments. FIFA and CONCACAF sell the rights to the World Cup and Gold Cup, respectively, to sports marketing companies. The companies, in turn, sell the rights to TV and radio broadcast networks, major corporate sponsors and other sub-licensees who want to broadcast the matches or promote their brands.
According to FIFA, of its $5.7 billion in total revenues between 2011 and 2014, 70 percent was the result of the sale of TV and marketing rights to the 2014 World Cup.
Since 1991, the indictment alleges, soccer officials “corrupted the enterprise by engaging in various criminal activities, including fraud, bribery and money laundering” designed to “shut out competitors and (keep) highly lucrative contracts for themselves.”
The indicted and convicted individual defendants face maximum prison terms of 20 years for the RICO conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges.
Blazer forfeited more than $1.9 million at the time of his guilty plea in November 2013 and has agreed to pay a second amount to be determined at the time of sentencing, according to the Justice Department.
Hawilla agreed to forfeit more than $151 million, $25 million of which was paid at the time of his plea in December 2014, the department said.
Two other individuals, Daryll Warner, a former FIFA development officer, and Daryan Warner also pleaded guilty to wire fraud-related charges in 2013.
©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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