Law enforcement officials threw a flurry of red cards at the world soccer establishment Wednesday, charging nine top FIFA officials and five others 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 Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the organization that regulates and promotes soccer worldwide, as well as leading officials of other soccer governing bodies.
“They corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a Brooklyn news conference.
Bribes and kickbacks were used to steer decisions on “who would televise games, where those games would be held and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide,” she added .
All told, Lynch said, the indicted soccer officials are charged with conspiracy involving the solicitation and receipt of more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks.
Lynch served until late last month as the Brooklyn-based U.S. attorney, overseeing the previously secret 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.
As part of the investigation, Swiss officials arrested seven of the indicted individuals in Zurich. The seven men arrested face extradition to the United States, which they can fight. FBI agents early Wednesday morning also conducted a search at CONCACAF headquarters in Miami, Fla.
CONCACAF is the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, the continental organization under FIFA.
Separately, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General announced that it has opened criminal proceedings against unidentified individuals over the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding competition. Amid myriad questions about its choices, FIFA selected Russia for 2018 and the oil-rich, sun-baked Middle Eastern country of Qatar as the site of the 2022 competition.
The Swiss prosecutors’ office said in a statement that it had seized “electronic data and documents” at FIFA’s headquarters on Wednesday as part of its probe.
“FIFA welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football,” the organization stated in a press release Wednesday. “We are pleased to see that the investigation is being energetically pursued for the good of football.”
FIFA had hired U.S. attorney Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor, to investigate the 2018 and 2022 bid process after widespread suspicions about vote buying surfaced. His findings were never fully released, and Garcia resigned in protest. Garcia’s full report was turned over to Swiss authorities in November.
Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who has served as FIFA president since his initial election in June 1998, was not among those indicted. The 79-year-old Blatter is running for re-election against one other opponent in Zurich on Friday.
“We understand the disappointment that many have expressed and I know that the events of today will impact the way in which many people view us,” Blatter said in a statement. “It should be clear that we welcome the actions and the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities.”
The previously secret guilty pleas of four individual and two corporate defendants were also unsealed Wednesday.
Those pleading guilty include Charles Blazer, a 70-year-old New York resident and the former general secretary of CONCACAF and a former member of FIFA’s executive committee. A legal document filed with Blazer’s guilty plea cited an episode from 1992, when prosecutors say “a representative of the Moroccan bid committee offered a bribe” to another FIFA official in exchange for supporting Morocco’s World Cup bid.
“Though the payment was made,” the criminal charging document stated, “France was selected over Morocco to host the 1998 World Cup.”
In 2004, prosecutors charge, Morocco’s bid committee again offered a bribe, of $1 million, for support of its 2010 World Cup bid. South African representatives, though, allegedly offered a larger payment of $10 million.
“Blazer understood the offer to be in exchange for the agreement” to vote for South Africa’s 2010 bid, prosecutors stated. South Africa secured the bid and hosted the World Cup. Blazer eventually “learned that the South Africans were unable to arrange for the payment to be made directly from government funds,” prosecutors said.
José Hawilla, the 50-year-old owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a sports marketing corporation headquartered in Brazil, also pleaded guilty, as did two of Hawilla’s companies: Traffic Sports International Inc. and Traffic Sports USA Inc., which is based in Florida.
“Hawilla and his co-conspirators used a number of sophisticated money laundering techniques, including the use of a numbered account at a Swiss bank, currency dealers, and trusted intermediaries, to effect bribe and kickback payments,” prosecutors stated in a legal document called a criminal information.
Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner, the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, are among the soccer officials charged with a variety 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 oversee the sport in various regions.
The organizations manage the rights associated with soccer events and tournaments, such as the World Cup and the Gold Cup, to sports marketing companies. The companies, in turn, sell the rights to broadcast networks, corporate sponsors and other sublicensees.
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 in Brazil.
The indicted and convicted individual defendants face maximum prison terms of 20 years for the RICO – racketeering – conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, money-laundering conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges.
Blazer forfeited over $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, brothers Daryll Warner, a former FIFA development officer, and Daryan Warner, also pleaded guilty to wire fraud-related charges in 2013, the Justice Department disclosed Wednesday.