Soccer Officials Arrested In Zurich; World Cup Votes Probed

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says bribery and corruption have been marring soccer for at least 24 years as FIFA officials solicited bribes from sports marketing firms and others surrounding its marque events.

Lynch spoke Wednesday in New York as a 47-count indictment was unveiled against 14 people in a sweeping investigation of FIFA. Seven FIFA officials were arrested Wednesday in Zurich pending extradition to the U.S.

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Prosecutors say over the last 24 years, U.S. and South American sports marketing executives paid more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to secure media and marketing rights to world-renowned soccer tournaments.

Lynch said, beginning in 1991, those involved “corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves. … They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”

“These individuals, through these organizations, engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide, one of the most popular sports around the globe,” Lynch said.

FBI Director James Comey blasted those allegedly responsible for taking bribes.

“The game, according to the allegations in this indictment, was hijacked,” he said. “That field that is so famously flat was made tilted in favor of those looking to gain at the expense of countries and kids enjoying the game of soccer.”

Chart illustrating alleged FIFA corruption. (Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880)

Chart illustrating alleged FIFA corruption. (Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880)

“This really is the World Cup of fraud,” said Richard Weber, chief of the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigation unit. “Today, we are issuing FIFA a red card.”

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that two current FIFA vice presidents were among those arrested and indicted — Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. The others are Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas of Britain, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Jose Maria Marin of Brazil.

All seven are connected with the regional confederations of North and South America and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The Swiss justice ministry said six of the seven officials arrested oppose extradition to the United States, adding that U.S. authorities now have 40 days to submit the formal extradition request.

One of those detained, who was unidentified, agreed to “a simplified extradition procedure,” meaning he can be sent to the U.S. in the coming days.

Nine of the 14 who were indicted by the Justice Department are soccer officials, while four are sports marketing executives and another works in broadcasting. Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president from Trinidad and Tobago, was among those indicted.

Swiss prosecutors, meanwhile, announced criminal proceedings Wednesday into FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

The Swiss prosecutors’ office said in a statement they seized “electronic data and documents” at FIFA’s headquarters on Wednesday as part of their probe. And Swiss police said they will question 10 FIFA executive committee members who took part in the World Cup votes in December 2010.

The Swiss investigation against “persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering” again throws into the doubt the integrity of the voting.

“FIFA is fully cooperating with the investigation and is supporting the collection of evidence in this regard,” FIFA said in a statement.

The Swiss prosecutors’ office said the U.S. probe was separate from its investigation but that authorities were working together.

The U.S. case involves bribes “totaling more than $100 million” linked to commercial deals dating back to the 1990s for soccer tournaments in the United States and Latin America, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said. The Justice Department said the corruption is linked to World Cup qualifying matches and the Copa America — South America’s continental championship.

U.S. prosecutors in New York said they had uncovered a dozen different schemes during its investigation, and some involved the awarding of the 2010 World Cup. South Africa, with the backing of Nelson Mandela, beat rival bids from Morocco and Egypt to host the tournament in 2010, four years after narrowly losing out to Germany for the previous tournament.

Dozens of soccer officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA congress and presidential election, where Sepp Blatter is widely expected to win re-election at the helm of the governing body of world soccer.

FIFA said Friday’s presidential election would go ahead as planned with Blatter going for a fifth term. Blatter was not named in either investigation.

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FIFA also ruled out a revote of the World Cups won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

Some are not shocked by the allegations.

“The idea that anyone would be surprised that issues of bribery, racketeering and graft are in FIFA is sort of like being surprised about falling into a pool and coming up and being wet,” Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine, told CBS2.

“No one should believe anything that FIFA is saying today,” Zirin added. “They are in the words of a friend of mine in Zurich shell-shocked, and this story could change minute by minute. And the layers of corruption around Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 are so intense and so deep. That part of the story is not going anywhere.”

“Unfortunately FIFA is suffering under these circumstances,” said Walter de Gregorio, FIFA director of communications. “It is certainly a difficult moment for us.”

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is also a FIFA executive committee member, told The Associated Press, “We’ve got nothing to hide.”

“We’re prepared to show everything,” Mutko said in a telephone interview. “We’ve always acted within the law.”

Qatari soccer officials declined to comment.

Blatter had been scheduled to attend a meeting of the Confederation of African Football in a different downtown Zurich hotel, but he canceled his appearance.

Blatter’s only opponent in Friday’s presidential election, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, said it was “a sad day for football,” but declined to comment further.

The arrests were made at the lakeside Baur au Lac Hotel in downtown Zurich, long favored as a place for senior FIFA officials to stay. It was the stage for intense lobbying for votes ahead of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting decisions in December 2010.

In Florida, a small group of agents from the FBI and IRS executed search warrants at CONCACAF headquarters in Miami Beach.

Neither agency offered comment on the investigation.

The North American regional body, known as CONCACAF, reported itself to U.S. tax authorities in 2012. Then based in New York, the organization had not paid taxes over several years when its president was Warner and secretary general was Chuck Blazer of the United States.

Warner left soccer in 2011 to avoid FIFA sanctions in a bribery scandal during that year’s presidential election. Blazer left in 2013 and has pleaded guilty to charges, the Justice Department said in Wednesday’s statement.

Warner’s successor as CONCACAF leader and FIFA vice president is Webb, who is from the Cayman Islands and was staying at the Baur au Lac this week.

The Swiss Federal Office of Justice said in its statement that U.S. authorities suspect the six arrested officials of having received or paid bribes totaling millions of dollars and that the crimes were agreed to and prepared in the U.S., and payments carried out via U.S. banks.

“The bribery suspects, representatives of sports media and sports promotion firms, are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to the soccer functionaries (FIFA delegates) and other functionaries of FIFA sub-organizations – totaling more than USD 100 million,” the FOJ statement said.

A statement in German added that the probe involved tournaments in the United States.

International media gathered at the street entrance of the Baur au Lac in scenes reminiscent of the World Cup votes won by Russia and Qatar more than four years ago.

Then, former President Bill Clinton was inside meeting FIFA voters who later rejected the American bid in favor of Qatar, and Britain’s Prince William was part of the losing English bid team.

Suspicions of vote-buying and wrongdoing in those bidding contests have dogged FIFA ever since.

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