Using multiple inside informants and sophisticated financial tracking techniques first developed for drug transactions, federal prosecutors in New York have presented a powerful indictment of top FIFA officials that may reach even higher into the world’s most popular sport.
The 165-page indictment unsealed Wednesday is remarkably detailed, replete with inside accounts of brazen arrangements to make million-dollar payments in return for officials’ votes to hold soccer competitions in a particular city or country, or for approving marketing agreements to broadcast those tournaments.
The source of the information is no mystery. It was revealed Wednesday that four people, including two sons of one of the main targets, and the owner of the primary sports marketing company involved, had long ago pleaded guilty and were apparently cooperating with the investigation. That information is backed up by dozens of detailed financial transactions used to transmit the alleged bribes.
Two knowledgeable federal law enforcement sources said “the pivot” for expanding the U.S. investigation into FIFA came in the fall of 2013, when Chuck Blazer, the U.S. representative on the board’s executive committee, entered a plea deal with prosecutors.
In November 2013, Blazer admitted to a number of charges, including racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering and income tax evasion. He forfeited over $1.9 million and has agreed to pay more at his sentencing, federal officials revealed publicly Wednesday.
According to one of the sources, Blazer also agreed to provide “insider” information about other alleged violations within the top tier at FIFA, and at one time, the source said, he agreed to wear a wire to record some conversations.
Though some were surprised to see the U.S. Justice Department target a worldwide sports organization, legal experts said such international corruption is an emerging focus of criminal prosecution.
“We used to think of these things as just sports," said William Barry, a Washington lawyer who specializes in cross-border investigations. "But it's not just sports. It's business. And now there’s an expectation that when allegations of impropriety arise, they are going to be handled independently and with impartiality.”
With an apparently strong case and many high-profile defendants who are likely to seek plea bargains, further charges against top FIFA officials seemed likely.
“They already have several individuals who have pleaded guilty," said Andy Spalding, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an editor of a blog about U.S. corruption overseas. "I suspect the dominoes are going to fall quickly.”
Spalding said that even though most of the defendants are foreigners, there would be little problem establishing U.S. legal jurisdiction. Any of the many financial transactions conducted through U.S. banks would be enough, he said.
In addition, one of the two main international soccer federations involved is based in New York and one of the sports marketing companies, Traffic Sports USA, is based in Miami.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the arrests appeared to be an illegal attempt by the United States to impose its laws on foreign states.
"This is another case of the illegal extraterritorial application of U.S. laws," the ministry said in a statement on its website.
The U.S. indictments cast a shadow over the FIFA decisions to hold the next two World Cup finals in Russia and in Qatar, where the temperature is often over 110 degrees in the summer.
The FIFA board in November announced it was closing its internal probe into allegations of bidding irregularities for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup locations. The board at that time said it could not confirm any allegations of bid rigging and would not reopen the bidding process.
Potential problems with extraditing defendants to the U.S. were lessened by the arrest of at least seven of them in Zurich, Switzerland, where they were attending a meeting of FIFA, soccer’s top governing body.
Law enforcement sources said agents were continuing to seek information from informants and others connected to FIFA.
“These are the ones you turn to,” said one source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “You build your case, sometimes from the bottom, sometimes out from the top.”
Two sources indicated that additional guilty pleas and indictments might be forthcoming.
FIFA officials issued a statement Wednesday saying the organization “welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football.” The statement added that “FIFA is fully cooperating with the investigation and is supporting the collection of evidence.”