Jonathan Gold's 101 Best Restaurants: The new list is here

Bribe at CONCACAF meeting got soccer investigation rolling

The investigation that rocked international soccer may have started with a bribe at a meeting in Trinidad

The scandal that rocked international soccer Wednesday may have gotten its start four years ago in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Trinidad, where officials attending a meeting of the Caribbean soccer union were handed envelopes containing $40,000 in cash.

They gathered to hear a pitch from a candidate running to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president.

The meeting was arranged by Jack Warner, a history teacher turned FIFA official and president of CONCACAF, the federation overseeing soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. After the candidate spoke, Warner told the soccer officials to stop by that afternoon to pick up a gift.

It wasn’t a gift though, it was a bribe, according to the Justice Department.

Former FIFA official Chuck Blazer, then Warner’s deputy at CONCACAF, was a key figure in an investigation that ultimately ended Wednesday in Brooklyn, where a 47-count indictment accused Warner, eight other FIFA officials and five sports marketing or banking executives with bribery, corruption and other crimes.

Also named in the indictment was Jeffrey Webb, a FIFA vice president and Warner’s replacement as president of CONCACAF.

In November 2013 Blazer pleaded guilty to racketeering, conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and income tax evasion and forfeited $1.9 million at the time of his plea, federal officials said Wednesday. Blazer also resigned from FIFA in 2013.

Blazer, a former New York entrepreneur, was introduced to soccer in 1976 when he volunteered to coach his son’s team in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Three decades later World Soccer magazine named him one of the sport’s most important people.

By the time of the 2011 conference in Trinidad, Warner and Blazer had become a team, working together to raise CONCACAF from a former soccer backwater to one of the world’s most powerful federations. But much of that growth was allegedly funded through bribes and kickbacks that earned Blazer the nickname “Mr. Ten Percent” — the amount of money he allegedly insisted on when cutting deals.

Blazer, with his bushy, unkempt white beard and corpulent frame, lived well. CONCACAF moved its offices to New York City, where it gave Blazer a pricey Trump Tower apartment for his cats, according to the New York Daily News. He also had homes in New York, Miami and the Bahamas and was given a $50,000 Hummer and a fleet of motor scooters to drive around Manhattan.

And it was Blazer’s acumen for business, the Associated Press said, that helped turned FIFA into financial power, one with reserves of more than $1.5 billion.

That all began to unravel in 2011. Worried that he would be implicated in the bribery scandal, Blazer reported Warner to the FIFA Ethnics Committee, leading to Warner’s resignation.

At about the same time the Internal Revenue Service began inquiring about unpaid taxes on Blazer’s soccer earnings.

The Daily News reported last year that the FBI used the threat of prosecution on tax charges to turn Blazer into a cooperative source, one who used a tiny recording device hidden in a keychain to tape conversations with soccer officials at events such as the 2012 Summer Olympics.

That evidence, the newspaper said, provided investigators with details that formed the foundation of Wednesday’s indictments. A federal source told The Times that Blazer had agreed to provide information about alleged violations at the top tier of FIFA.

Blazer, who is 70 and battling cancer, could be sentenced to more than a decade in prison.

But given his failing health and cooperation with the probe, it’s uncertain if he will serve any time.

Perhaps the most surprising name among the nine soccer officials charged Wednesday was Webb, who is listed first in the indictment. A Florida-educated banker from the Cayman Islands, Webb was seen as a reformer when he replaced Warner as CONCACAF president in 2012.

A member of FIFA’s executive committee, the 50-year-old Webb was among the first to loudly call for FIFA to publicly release a report by . Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor in New York, into allegations of corruption surrounding the bidding process that placed the next two World Cups in Russia, in 2018, and Qatar, in 2022.

Among the charges listed in the indictment, Webb is said to have accepted a bribe last year to assure CONCACAF would allow the 2016 Copa America to be played in the U.S. He was also charged with participating in a money-laundering scheme centered on the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times