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U.S. soccer official says he saw no FIFA corruption but felt growing 'discomfort'

A top U.S. soccer official told lawmakers Wednesday that he had no direct knowledge of the purported bribery scandal that rocked the sport's international governing body, FIFA, but acknowledged he felt moments of “discomfort” over what he saw.

Dan Flynn, the U.S. Soccer Federation's secretary-general and second-ranking official, testified before the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection at a hearing to determine whether U.S. soccer officials knew about or participated in the alleged scheme to pay FIFA officials more than $150 million in bribes to influence the selection of World Cup host countries and sponsors.

Flynn said he never directly witnessed corrupt activity and none was brought to his attention by other federation employees. “I knew nothing about any corruption. I just wasn’t involved,” he said.

But Flynn said that several months before the scandal broke, he began to feel uncomfortable and sometimes extracted himself from meetings or situations. He said he never expressed his concerns to anyone.

“I was aware of some level of discomfort, but it was all a general feeling. I had no hard evidence,” Flynn said.

Nine current and former FIFA officials were indicted in May by U.S. prosecutors on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering.

“What did U.S. soccer know?” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan), chair of the subcommittee, asked Flynn. “What should you have known about the corruption?”

Moran described the hearing as a way to begin discussions about “how we can restore integrity to the game so many Americans and citizens of the world enjoy."

The U.S. Soccer Federation's highest-ranking official, President Sunil Gulati, who also serves on FIFA’s executive committee, declined the panel's invitation to testify.

Andrew Jennings, a BBC investigative reporter who is credited with bringing the FIFA corruption allegations to light, questioned Flynn’s claim that the federation lacked knowledge of the kickbacks or the power to intervene. He said he turned over documents exposing rampant FIFA corruption to the federation in 2011.

"If America's soccer leaders had taken action,” Jennings said, FIFA's leadership would have been exposed and the U.S. might have won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, “not some graveyards in the gulf." Qatar beat out the U.S. and other nations to win the competition to host the 2022 World Cup, becoming the first Middle East country to be selected.

Jennings told senators there was little hope of reforming FIFA from within, advising instead that the U.S. create an organization and invite sponsors and TV networks to join.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, likened FIFA to "a Mafia-style crime syndicate," and said that the comparison was “almost insulting to the Mafia because they would have never been so blatant."

Flynn told senators that the U.S. federation could wield only marginal influence inside FIFA. “We are one of 209 national association members,” he said.

Nevertheless, Flynn insisted that the federation had tried to use its limited role and influence to be “a strong advocate for reforming the organization by … improving governance, increasing transparency and strengthening ethics rules."

But Flynn said efforts to reform FIFA were rebuffed and may have carried “political risks, including the potential impact on [America’s] possible bid to host the 2026 men’s World Cup."

Michael Hershman, a transparency expert who previously served on FIFA's independent governance committee, testified that FIFA’s “irresponsible notion [that] it was autonomous and did not have to adhere to outside oversight or interference” contributed to the scandal.

But Hershman cautioned that the public should not assume that FIFA was the only sports organization tainted by corruption. “Every single governing body in the sports world … needs to agree to modern standards of transparency and accountability,” he said. “Sport needs to be regulated and treated for what it is: big business.”

@tomanmiller

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