The Justice Department’s widening probe of international soccer led to 16 high-ranking officials being indicted on corruption charges Thursday, including the presidents of two federations overseeing the sport in the Americas.
A 92-count indictment unsealed in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn accuses the men of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, among other offenses, over a 24-year period and brings the total number of individuals and entities charged since May to 41.
The investigations have rocked FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, with President Sepp Blatter agreeing to step down in February less than a year after winning election to a fifth term.
Swiss authorities have opened a criminal inquiry against Blatter, who was suspended by FIFA in October as part of a separate investigation into a $2-million payment to European soccer boss Michel Platini.
Five of the officials named in Thursday’s indictments are current or former members of the FIFA executive council, including Honduran Alfredo Hawit, president of CONCACAF, which runs the sport in North America, Central America and the Caribbean; and Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay, a FIFA vice president and the head of the South American federation CONMEBOL.
The Justice Department also said eight defendants named in the May indictments, among them former CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, have pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit more than $40 million.
Hawit and Napout were arrested by Swiss authorities Thursday in a predawn raid in Zurich and are fighting extradition to the U.S. Also indicted Thursday were former Honduran President Rafael Callejas, a member of FIFA’s television and marketing committee and a former president of the Honduran soccer federation; Hector Trujillo, general secretary of the Guatemalan soccer federation and a judge on the country’s high court; Marco Polo del Nero, president of the Brazilian soccer federation; and Ricardo Teixeira, the Brazilian federation’s former president.
Both Del Nero and Teixeira were also FIFA executive committee members. Teixeira was once the son-in-law to former FIFA President Joao Havelange as well.
“The charges unsealed today send a clear message to those who corrupted a sport beloved by millions to satisfy their own greed: We are determined to put a stop to bribery and corruption in international soccer and to make room for a new era of integrity and reform,” Robert L. Capers, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York said. “This indictment is the latest step in that effort but our work is not done.”
By indicting the last three CONCACAF and CONMEBOL presidents, as well as the heads of federations in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and the current or former soccer federation presidents in every Central American country except Belize, the Justice Department’s investigation has dealt a crippling blow to soccer in the region just seven months before June’s 16-nation Copa America.
Last year, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials agreed to play the 100th anniversary edition of the Copa tournament, which predates the World Cup, in the U.S. for the first time. But that plan was temporarily put on hold when the Justice Department alleged corporate executives paid more than $20 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for media and marketing rights to the tournament.
Thursday’s indictments included additional charges of bribery linked to rights to the Copa tournament, which is be played at 10 U.S. stadiums including the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
U.S. Soccer, which will act as the local organizing committee for the tournament, issued a statement Thursday saying the event would go forward as scheduled.
“Today’s events involving individual members of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL in no way pierce the integrity of the rigorous safeguards the United States Soccer Federation required before agreeing to host Copa America Centenario that ensure the tournament is organized and conducted in a way that is open, transparent and above reproach,” it said.
Justice Department officials said the criminal investigation, which has also involved the FBI and IRS, will continue both in the U.S. and in Switzerland, FIFA’s headquarters, where American authorities have been working with local officials.
“We are always learning more information and new information,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta E. Lynch said. “We have noticed accounts running through 40 countries and [involving] millions of dollars. We have, we believe, a very good picture of the scope of the bribery and the scope of the corruption.”