The Slatest

Top International Soccer Officials Arrested in Switzerland at United States’ Behest

Rain covers a sign outside the the venue hosting the 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Update, 2:50 p.m.: The powerful European football association UEFA has called for the postponement of FIFA’s Congress, scheduled to begin Thursday in Zurich, and of the Friday FIFA presidential election that is (still) expected to reward Sepp Blatter with another term. UEFA’s statement says its member associations should consider boycotting the Congress (if it goes forward Thursday, presumably) and calls Wednesday’s arrests and indicments “a disaster for FIFA.”

Update, 11:20 a.m.: Attorney general Loretta Lynch, speaking at a press conference in Brooklyn, said that the FIFA bribery scheme alleged by the Department of Justice was carried out in part on United States soil and executed in part via the U.S. financial system. “In many instances, the defendants and their co-conspirators planned aspects of this long-running scheme during meetings held here in the United States,” Lynch said. “They used the banking and the wire facilities of the U.S. to distribute their bribe payments, and they planned to profit from their scheme in large part through promotional efforts directed at the growing U.S. market for soccer.”

Lynch’s comments, in addition to apparently explaining the Department of Justice’s motive for prosecuting a number of foreign nationals, are also noteworthy in light of a recent report by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap about FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Despite longtime suspicions that Blatter is deeply involved in corrupt activities, he was not charged by the DOJ—and Schaap reported earlier in May that Blatter does not appear to have entered the United States since 2011, apparently out of fear that he could be prosecuted by American authorities.

Lynch confirmed that, as had been reported elsewhere, investigators executed a search warrant Wednesday at CONCACAF headquarters in Miami. She also said that authorities are “in the process of seeking the apprehension” of the seven defendants whose indictments were announced but who were not arrested today in Switzerland.

Update, 9:35 a.m.: The Department of Justice has released a statement that provides more detailed information about the investigation that led to Wednesday’s arrests. The DOJ says 14 figures in total are charged—nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives. The list includes current FIFA vice president and CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, former CONCACAF president Jack Warner, and a number of other figures in North and South American soccer, including Argentinian and Brazilian business executives. (CONCACAF is the organization that runs North American, Central American, and Carribean soccer.) Seven were arrested Wednesday in Switzerland; the status of the others isn’t clear.

The DOJ also announced that four other individuals have already pleaded guilty in the case in agreements that until Wednesday had been kept under seal. Two are sons of Jack Warner, one is a Brazilian executive, and one is notorious United States soccer figure Chuck Blazer. The New York Daily News reported in 2014 that Blazer had been cooperating with FBI and IRS investigators as an informant.

The U.S. alleges that the defendants, both those newly charged and those who have already pleaded guilty, committed various crimes related to the sale of soccer broadcasting and marketing rights:

All told, the soccer officials are charged with conspiring to solicit and receive well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for their official support of the sports marketing executives who agreed to make the unlawful payments. Most of the schemes alleged in the indictment relate to the solicitation and receipt of bribes and kickbacks by soccer officials from sports marketing executives in connection with the commercialization of the media and marketing rights associated with various soccer matches and tournaments.

The American investigation does not appear to involve the controversial selection of Russia and Qatar as future World Cup hosts—but Swiss authorities just announced that they have opened an investigation into the Russia and Qatar bids, and that as part of that investigation “electronic data and documents” were seized at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters on Wednesday.

Original post, 1:56 a.m.: In a move so shocking the typically restrained New York Times describes it as “extroardinary,” Swiss authorities have arrested a number of top officials from FIFA, international soccer’s powerful and prosperous governing body, in Zurich—and plan to extradite them to face prosecution in the U.S., where they are charged in a corruption investigation that was conducted by the the U.S. attorney’s office in New York’s Eastern District, the FBI, and the IRS. Notorious FIFA president Sepp Blatter is not charged, but 14 other major soccer figures face indictment.* (The AP reports that six officials have been arrested thusfar. Some of those who will be charged are reportedly not in Zurich at the moment.) From the Times:

As leaders of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, more than a dozen plain-clothed Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich.

The officers went to the registration desk to get keys, then headed upstairs toward the hotel rooms.

The charges allege widespread corruption in FIFA over the past two decades, involving bids for World Cups as well as marketing and broadcast deals, according to three law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case. The charges include wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering.

The Times and the New York Daily News were both on top of the surprise raid with immediate and detailed stories; more than 30 minutes after the paper’s story went online, though, neither ESPN or the UK Guardian, famed for its soccer coverage, had posted an article on the arrests.

It’s not clear yet on what grounds the U.S. is claiming jurisdiction over the foreign nationals involved in the case, though the Times says that North American soccer figure Jack Warner is charged:

Law enforcement officials said much of the inquiry involves Concacaf, one of the six regional confederations that compose FIFA. Concacaf — which stands for Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football — includes major countries like the United States and Mexico, and also tiny ones like Barbados and Montserrat.

Concacaf was led from 1990 to 2011 by Mr. Warner, the longtime head of Trinidad & Tobago’s federation. A key powerbroker in FIFA’s governing executive committee, Mr. Warner had been dogged by accusations of corruption. He was accused of illegally profiting from the resale of tickets to the 2006 World Cup, and of withholding the bonuses of the Trinidad players who participated in that tournament.

FIFA corruption, both documented and alleged, has long infuriated soccer fans around the world. The sport’s governing authorities are notorious for awarding themselves lavish salaries and perks while making aggressively inexplicable decisions on matters such as where to hold the World Cup; the 2022 tournament, for example, is scheduled for Qatar, where the weather is so hot that the entire world soccer calendar is being adjusted to play in cooler winter months and labor, human rights, and freedom-of-speech abuses are already making news on a regular basis. The 2018 tournament will be held in Russia, which is fresh off hosting the notoriously wasteful 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics amidst an atmosphere of homophobic repression.

The U.S. investigation of FIFA, the Daily News says, was launched in response to the 2010 selection of Qatar and Russia as future hosts. FIFA commissioned its own internal inquiry into allegations of bribery related to the Russia/Qatar selection, but then suppressed publication of the resulting report, which provoked to the December 2014 resignation of the investigator who put the report together. As it happens, that investigator was Michael J. Garcia, who served from 2005 until 2008 as the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District. Garcia’s predecessor in the Southern District job, current FBI director James Comey, will reportedly hold a press conference with attorney general Loretta Lynch—who until very recently ran New York’s Eastern District, which, to reiterate, was apparently a major part of this investigation—on Wednesday to discuss the FIFA charges.

*Correction, May 27, 2015: This post originally misstated that indictments of more than 10 FIFA officials would be announced Wednesday. Nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives were charged.