WASHINGTON - In indicting some of the world’s high-ranking football officials Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department said it is exercising its legal authority to crack down on corruption that touched American turf and that damaged American interests.
An indictment unsealed Wednesday charged 14 defendants – including nine former or current Fédération Internationale de Football Association officials and five sports marketing executives – with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. More arrests are expected as the investigation continues.
"The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement released after authorities began arresting several FIFA officials in Zurich, where they’d gathered for the organization’s annual meeting.
"It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks," she said.
Lynch said the defendants’ alleged practices "profoundly harmed a multitude of victims," including youth leagues and developing countries denied revenue from commercial rights.
Prosecutors said the scheme involved sports media executives paying or agreeing to pay more than $150 million in exchange for marketing rights to tournaments.
The investigation was launched in 2011 by the Eastern District of New York and overseen by Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn at the time.
"The main thrust is this: U.S. statutes cast the net very broadly in giving the [department] the ability to combat bribery, to combat racketeering," said Steven Schneebaum, a Washington attorney specializing in international law. "… It seems as if these characters, if the allegations are true, are like a textbook case of the kind of internationally wrongful bribery that the statutes are in place to combat."
In bringing its case, the Justice Department invoked RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The 1970 law, enacted to halt organized crime, usually targets gangsters and drug cartels involved in activities such as bribery, money laundering, kidnapping and murder.
"I don’t currently recall a situation in which I’ve seen it [RICO] used in this manner," said Joe Whitley, a former U.S. attorney in the Middle and Northern District of Georgia. He’s now in private practice in that southern state and in Washington, D.C.
"Increasingly, the sports world is under greater scrutiny," Whitley added. "There’s always been a concern about fixing games.… [But] something of this magnitude, I don’t know that I’ve personally seen."
Given the investigation’s scope, Whitley said he was impressed that the Swiss government and various U.S. entities – including the Justice and Treasury departments – were able to keep it quiet.
"They seem to have done a pretty phenomenal job of keeping this under wraps until now," he said. "It's a relatively complex and lengthy indictment, which suggests the grand jury has been sitting for a long time or there have been separate grand juries."
The case "clearly has been well investigated," Whitley said. He added that Wednesday’s briefing suggested "there may be further investigation and further charges. 'Stay tuned' is what I think the government is saying."
No ‘fixed’ games
The arrests came two days before an expected vote on whether to return FIFA President Sepp Blatter to a fifth term. Blatter is not being charged "at this time," Lynch said in a news briefing Wednesday.
The attorney general also emphasized there were no allegations of games or tournaments being fixed.
FIFA for years has faced accusations of soliciting or receiving bribes and playing favorites. The clamor increased in late 2010, when the organization simultaneously awarded World Cup Finals hosting honors to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, respectively. The U.S. Soccer Federation had submitted a bid for the latter event.
FIFA, meanwhile, had undertaken its own internal investigation into the 2022 World Cup bidding process. Michael Garcia, the organization’s top ethics investigator and a former federal prosecutor in New York, turned in a 350-page report last September and later criticized the organization’s decision to publish a 43-page summary he said was misleading.
Praise for indictment
Wednesday’s announcement was met with enthusiasm by the International Center for Sport Security in Doha, Qatar.
"We are very pleased to see that finally these [corruption] allegations have been taken to the right judicial arena so we can see the truth finally come out," said Chris Eaton, the organization’s executive director of sport integrity.
Citing the Justice Department’s claim that FIFA corruption dated back 24 years, Eaton said, "That’s a shocking timeline, quite frankly, for it to lie dormant for so long."
FIFA "is this very opaque and shadowy organization," one that has “had this luxurious position … of not being held accountable very often for its actions," Eaton said. He anticipates reform: "What we’re seeing is the beginnings of a real crack" in transparency and accountability.
By charging the FIFA officials, the Justice Department scored on behalf of American foreign policy, said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
"Most of the rest of the world does not care about what Americans care about. What they do care passionately about is soccer – football," said Drezner, who also contributes to The Washington Post’s “PostEverything” blog.
"The fact that you have the United States promoting the rule of law ... gives comfort to allies and makes rivals like Russia somewhat uncomfortable," he told VOA. "It’s not like it’s any great secret that FIFA was corrupt.… In some ways, FIFA was like any other authoritarian government. It gave off the impression of being utterly bulletproof."
But the indictment, Drezner said, "sort of punctures the myth."
Jeff Young contributed to this report