UVery early on Wednesday morning, Swiss authorities swooped into Zurich’s five-star Baur au Lac hotel to arrest several high-ranking FIFA officials on corruption charges. The goal: Extradition to the United States, where nine FIFA officials and four corporate defendants face charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies. Six other parties have already been convicted in and are cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ongoing investigation.
A DOJ press release, sent out hours after the initial arrest, named the following prominent FIFA officials as indicted defendants:
- Jeffrey Webb – the current CONCACAF president and a FIFA vice-president, which gives him a seat on the exclusive FIFA executive committee. CONCACAF is the governing body the oversees soccer throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.
- Eduardo Li – the Costa Rican soccer federation president and a member-elect to the executive committee.
- Julio Rocha – the former Nicaraguan federation president is current a FIFA development officer.
- Costas Takkas – a current attaché to the CONCACAF president.
- Eugenio Figueredo – a FIFA vice-president and executive committee member and former Uruguay federation president
- Rafael Esquivel – a CONMEBOL executive committee member and Venezuelan federation president. CONMEBOL is South America’s governing body.
- José Maria Marin – a member of FIFA’s organizing committee for Olympic tournaments and a former Brazil federation president.
- Jack Warner – a former FIFA vice-president, executive committee member, and CONCACAF president. A politician and businessman in Trinidad and Tobago, Warner resigned the CONCACAF presidency in 2011 amid allegations of corruption.
- Nicolás Leoz – a former FIFA executive committee member and CONMEBOL president.
The release also named the following executives in the sports marketing and broadcasting businesses as defendants:
- Alejandro Burzaco – controlling principal of Torneos y Competencias S.A., a sports marketing business based in Argentina, and its affiliates.
- Aaron Davidson – president of Traffic Sports USA, Inc. (Traffic USA) and chairman of the board of directors for the North American Soccer League, the second-tier league of the U.S. Soccer pyramid.
- Hugo and Mariano Jinkis – controlling principals of Full Play Group S.A., a sports marketing business based in Argentina, and its affiliates.
- José Margulies – controlling principal of Valente Corp. and Somerton Ltd.
You’ll hear (over and over and over again) is that investigation is on-going, and it is. We’re just at the beginning. More details will come out. (We called the Warner sons and Aaron Davidson. They didn’t want to talk to us. Blatter and Blazer released statements.) As it stands, we have a list of names, a series of indictments and a smattering of specifics about how the DOJ believes crimes were committed. But between the lines, there are also a few things to keep in mind as the investigation moves forward.
While the Department of Justice press release lays out the indicted defendants, just as interesting is six parties (the four individual defendants, two corporations) who entered guilty pleas.
Two of Jack Warner’s sons, Daryll and Daryan, waived indictments by pleading to wire fraud, money laundering and the structuring of financial transactions. Former CONCACAF general secretary and FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, income tax evasion and failure to file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts. José Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, the Brazilian sports marketing conglomerate, plead to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Traffic Sports USA, Inc. and Traffic Sports International, Inc. pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy.
So what does all that mean? Several things. A guilty plea doesn’t come without a cost. A judge, ultimately, has to accept that plea, and acceptance is ultimately predicated on adequate cooperation with the authorities. Cooperation generally entails spilling the beans and coming clean. The Warners and Blazer pled in late 2013. That means they’ve likely been cooperating since well before late-2013. Hawilla’s plea came in December 2014, and Traffic’s only this month.
Expect more people to be rolled as everyone tries to save themselves. And considering level of access Blazer and the Warners alone had within the halls of FIFA, you can be fairly confident that the investigation has and will continue to uncover a lot of information that will be both tasty tabloid morsels and extremely helpful in prosecuting defendants.
Much of the media focus has been on FIFA and its officials. But rarely do we hear about corporations, when FIFA corruption is discussed, unless the conversation is about boycotts.
The fact that corporate defendants are included in the investigation supports another point that often gets overlooked in FIFA corruption conversations: Alleged corruption on this scale doesn’t probably involves a lot more people than just soccer bureaucrats knowing things.
3. Focus on CONCACAF probably just the start
CONCACAF represents an overwhelming number of the indicted FIFA officials. Considering FIFA is made up of 209 member nations, five our of nine defendants being from the region sounds ominous. At least, on the face of it.
But don’t immediately conclude that CONCACAF stinks more than other regions. Just as likely, the Department of Justice went after proximate individuals with clearer jurisdictional ties to the United States. Also, with Blazer and the Warners participating in the investigation at an early stage, it’s also just as likely that the gravitational pull just naturally started locally.
Close ties: How the FIFA indictments connect to U.S. soccer
From a prosecutorial standpoint, there’s not much currency in pursuing officials with more tenuous ties to the United States right out of the gate. But don’t be surprised if the radius of the investigation widens.
4. “Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA”
When charges are filed against individual defendants, it’s easy to embark on a character-driven witch hunt, one typically fueled by bizarre anecdotes and a thirst for any semblance of justice. But we need to be careful about focusing too much on the named defendants, because, as the Department of Justice press release alludes, the alleged behavior became “a way of doing business at FIFA.”
Corruption on this scale is a systemic issue. Although prosecuting alleged wrongdoers can be a step toward reform, we’re all familiar enough with major scandals to realize that bringing down a handful of figureheads alone,doesn’t always effectively reform institutionalized behavior.
Keep that in mind when sharpening your pitchfork.
5. Don’t make this about Blatter
Really. Don’t. FIFA “President for Life” Sepp Blatter has been the focus of #BlatterOut tweets for as long as humans have been walking upright. Does organizational culture somehow stem from the leader at the top? Sure. But still, this is bigger than even Blatter. Let’s not forget that the man Blatter replaced as FIFA president, Brazilian Joao Havelange, served as FIFA president from 1974 until 1998. After stepping down, Havelange held the title of Honorary FIFA President until 2013, when he resigned at the rip old age of 96 after a FIFA report revealed he was a huge fan of taking bribes.
Havelange’s departure ushered in the Blatter Era. Now look at where things stand. It’s worth remembering that while you’re beating Blatter in effigy.