18 February 2019
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch (right), with other officials, speaks at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch (right), with other officials, speaks at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Latin American soccer bosses charged in latest FIFA graft probe

US prosecutors charged 16 people, including soccer bosses from across South and Central America, with multimillion-dollar bribery schemes for marketing and broadcast rights.

Court documents showed that the heads of the CONMEBOL and CONCACAF associations that run soccer in the Western Hemisphere and others with top jobs in the world governing body FIFA were charged along with current and former chiefs of the Brazil Football Confederation (CBF), which hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals.

A former president of Honduras, Rafael Callejas, and a judge on Guatemala’s constitutional court, Héctor Trujillo, were named in the indictment.

CONCACAF acting president Alfredo Hawit of Honduras, a vice president of FIFA, and CONMEBOL head Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay were arrested in a pre-dawn raid by Swiss police at a hotel in Zurich near the headquarters of FIFA, which has been in turmoil since a first round of indictments and arrests last May.

Hawit was appointed by the Confederation of North, Central America and the Caribbean Association Football to replace Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands who was himself arrested in Zurich in May.

Webb, a former FIFA vice president, pleaded guilty last month to racketeering and other charges and agreed to forfeit US$7.6 million, prosecutors said on Thursday.

A total of eight people had agreed to plead guilty since May, US authorities said, pointing to progress in the investigation.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference in Washington that corruption had become deeply ingrained in the business of soccer.

Singling out Guatemala’s Trujillo, she said he was “purportedly dispensing justice by day while allegedly soliciting bribes and selling his influence within FIFA”.

She said “the betrayal of trust that is set forth here is truly outrageous, and the scale of corruption alleged herein is unconscionable”.

The Justice Department said that the new charges bring the total number of people and entities charged to 41.

The soccer officials were charged with running schemes designed to solicit and receive more than US$200 million in bribes and kickbacks to sell media and marketing rights for soccer tournaments and matches.

Ironically, a FIFA executive committee approval of a package of reforms in Zurich to clean up the scandalized organization was overshadowed by the arrests and new charges.

In Miami on Thursday, FBI agents searched the office of Media World, an affiliate of Spanish media giant Imagina Group.

Media World was one of the unidentified sports marketing companies mentioned in a US indictment in May as having agreed to pay a bribe to a high-ranking soccer official in the Americas, sources told Reuters in July.

Imagina said in a statement it was cooperating.

The raid on the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich echoed arrests at the same place in May that plunged FIFA into crisis. The avalanche of corruption allegations prompted FIFA president Sepp Blatter to say he would resign, only days after being re-elected to a fifth term.

Blatter, his deputy Jerome Valcke and European soccer boss Michel Platini have all been suspended by an internal ethics watchdog. None of them has been charged with a crime, and all deny any wrongdoing.

Leading FIFA sponsors Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s Corp and Visa Inc. on Tuesday published an open letter demanding independent oversight of the reform process.

In parallel investigations, Swiss and US authorities are focusing on whether certain business contracts or the World Cup hosting rights for 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar were won with the help of bribery.

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