For years, international soccer’s governing body FIFA has been criticized by the sports media for its systemic corruption and disregard for the rule of law. The accusations against FIFA have ranged from corruption and money laundering to media suppression and election rigging. While on the rare occasion certain FIFA officials may have found themselves in legal hot water, until recently, FIFA as an entity has managed to stay out of legal trouble. That was until Loretta Lynch and the US Attorney General’s office decided to take unprecedented legal action against FIFA and its officials, resulting in a litany of indictments, convictions, and guilty pleas that continue to roll in.
Adding up the Indictments
The odyssey began in May 2015, when US federal prosecutors unsealed a 47-count indictment charging 14 defendants with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering (among other crimes) in connection with their participation in a decades long scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer. The defendants included several high-ranking officials of FIFA, the organization responsible for the regulation and promotion of soccer worldwide, as well as top officials of other national and regional soccer governing bodies that operate under the FIFA umbrella. The guilty pleas of four individual and two corporate defendants were unsealed as well. The US department of justice also announced that Swiss authorities arrested seven defendants charged in this indictment at the request of the United States.
“The US government is taking the position that FIFA should be treated like a criminal syndicate because of their systemic use of bribes and other forms of corruption.”
In June 2015, FIFA’s long-time president Sepp Blatter announced his “resignation” (effective February 2016). He had been comfortably re-elected only days earlier in the face of news from the United States that he was a focus of a federal corruption investigation. In September 2015, criminal proceedings commenced against Blatter in his home country of Switzerland on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation.
In December 2015, the US Department of Justice released a new 92 count indictment alleging that 27 defendants engaged in a number of schemes involving selling lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments and matches, bringing the total number of defendants to 41. By this time, 12 individuals and two corporations had been convicted in the ongoing investigation. The convicted defendants have agreed to forfeit $190 million. Later in December, Sepp Blatter and Michael Platini were banned for eight years from all football related activity by FIFA’s ethics committee after it was discovered that Blatter had made a $2 million “disloyal payment” to Platini which was not contemplated by any written employment contract.
In April 2016, the ex-president of Honduras, who ran the country’s soccer federation from 2002 to 2015 pled guilty to racketeering and corruption charges. Most recently, in October 2016, the former president of the Costa Rica’s soccer federation pled guilty to taking bribes in exchange for awarding contracts for the media and marketing rights to FIFA World Cup qualifier matches. To date, 18 defendants have pled guilty.
Why is the US Involved?
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a United States federal law that provides extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. RICO focuses specifically on racketeering and allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for crimes that the ordered others to do. Originally intended to enable the more effective prosecution of organized crime outfits, over the years, RICO has been used in a variety of settings to prosecute large organizations operating outside of the law. Here, the US government is taking the position that FIFA, as the governing body of international football, should be treated like a criminal syndicate because of their systemic use of bribes and other forms of corruption to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
The US’s position is that it will investigate and prosecute any “corrupt enterprise” that uses the US financial system or meets in the US. The charges allege that some of the bribes were coordinated at meetings held in the US and some of the money was transferred through US bank accounts. While it is unclear what prompted the US to begin its investigation into FIFA, it is assumed that the US’s failed bid in 2010 to host the 2022 World Cup (which was awarded to Qatar of all places) may have aroused suspicions of the bribery and corruption they are now prosecuting.
The US has few direct ties to FIFA, which largely operates outside of the US. CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, has offices in Miami. Two heads of CONCACAF are among those that have been indicted. Several of the allegations of bribery and kickback schemes are related to the television and marketing rights of World Cup qualifying games in the CONCACAF region. There is also a sports marketing firm with offices in Miami called Traffic Sports USA which has been implicated in some of the bribery charges.
The US is uniquely situated to take on a powerful international entity like FIFA; it has the resources and expertise to combat such a well-funded organization. The US’s status as somewhat of an outsider to FIFA gives the prosecution more credibility. It is not under FIFA’s thumb, as so many other countries have been. Thus, the US can take the position that it is protecting counties more vulnerable to FIFA’s influence from being subjected to their bribes and corruption. While the prosecution has resulted in a number of convictions and a changing of the guard of FIFA’s leadership, only time will tell if the legal action will bring about lasting change in one of the world’s most powerful non-governmental bodies.