Wednesday, May 27, 2015

ZURICH: Soccer Officials Arrested; World Cup Votes Probed

A man on a scooter rides past the five-star hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland, Wednesday morning, May 27, 2015. The Swiss Federal Office of Justice said six soccer officials have been arrested and detained pending extradition at the request of U.S. authorities ahead of the FIFA congress in Zurich. In a statement Wednesday the FOJ said U.S. authorities suspect the officials of having received paid bribes totaling millions of dollars. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)


ZURICH (AP) — Swiss prosecutors opened criminal proceedings into FIFA's awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, only hours after seven soccer officials were arrested Wednesday pending extradition to the U.S. in a separate probe of "rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted" corruption.
FIFA, meanwhile, said Friday's presidential election would go ahead as planned with Sepp Blatter going for a fifth term. Blatter was not named in either investigation. FIFA also ruled out a revote of the World Cups won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
The Swiss prosecutors' office said in a statement they seized "electronic data and documents" at FIFA's headquarters on Wednesday as part of their probe. And Swiss police said they will question 10 FIFA executive committee members who took part in the World Cup votes in December 2010.
The Swiss investigation against "persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering" again throws into the doubt the integrity of the voting. "FIFA is fully cooperating with the investigation and is supporting the collection of evidence in this regard," FIFA said in a statement.
The Swiss announcement came only hours after 14 people were indicted in the U.S. for corruption. Seven of them were arrested and detained by Swiss police at the request of U.S. authorities after a raid at a luxury hotel in Zurich.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that two current FIFA vice presidents were among those arrested and indicted, Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. The others are Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas of Britain, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Jose Maria Marin of Brazil.
All seven are connected with the regional confederations of North and South America and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. "The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in the statement. "It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks."
Nine of the 14 that were indicted by the Justice Department are soccer officials, while four are sports marketing executives and another works in broadcasting. Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president from Trinidad and Tobago, was among those indicted.
The Swiss prosecutors' office said the U.S. probe was separate from its investigation but that authorities were working together. The votes to award the World Cups to Russia and Qatar have been surrounded in controversy and accusations of corruption.
Qatar, a tiny Gulf nation with little soccer tradition, was criticized from the start for its extreme summer heat. FIFA has since been forced to move the tournament to November-December instead of the usual June-July time slot.
FIFA also hired U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to investigate the 2018 and 2022 bid process. His findings were never fully released and both Russia and Qatar were confirmed as hosts. Garcia's full report was turned over to Swiss authorities in November, prompting Wednesday's raid on FIFA headquarters.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is also a FIFA executive committee member, told The Associated Press "we've got nothing to hide." "We're prepared to show everything," Mutko said in a telephone interview. "We've always acted within the law."
Qatari soccer officials declined to comment. The U.S. case involves bribes "totaling more than $100 million" linked to commercial deals dating back to the 1990s for soccer tournaments in the United States and Latin America, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said. The Justice Department said the corruption is linked to World Cup qualifying matches and the Copa America — South America's continental championship.
Dozens of soccer officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA congress and presidential election, where Blatter is widely expected to win re-election at the helm of the governing body of world soccer. Blatter had been scheduled to attend a meeting of the Confederation of African Football in a different downtown Zurich hotel, but he canceled his appearance. He later canceled his plans to attend a meeting of the South American confederation.
Blatter's only opponent in Friday's presidential election, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, seized on the situation to push his candidacy. "We cannot continue with the crisis in FIFA, a crisis that has been ongoing and is not just relevant to the events of today," Prince Ali said in a statement. "FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations. ... Leadership that restores confidence in the hundreds of millions of football fans around the world."
The arrests were made at the lakeside Baur au Lac Hotel in downtown Zurich, long favored as a place for senior FIFA officials to stay. It was the stage for intense lobbying for votes ahead of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting decisions.
In Florida, a small group of agents from the FBI and IRS executed search warrants at CONCACAF headquarters in Miami Beach. Neither agency offered comment on the investigation. The North American regional body, known as CONCACAF, reported itself to U.S. tax authorities in 2012. Then based in New York, the organization had not paid taxes over several years when its president was Warner and secretary general was Chuck Blazer of the United States.
Warner left soccer in 2011 to avoid FIFA sanctions in a bribery scandal during that year's presidential election. Blazer left in 2013 and has pleaded guilty to charges, the Justice Department said in Wednesday's statement.
Warner's successor as CONCACAF leader and FIFA vice president is Webb, who was staying at the Baur au Lac this week. The Swiss Federal Office of Justice said in its statement that U.S. authorities suspect the arrested officials of having received or paid bribes totaling millions of dollars and that the crimes were agreed to and prepared in the U.S., and payments carried out via U.S. banks.
"The bribery suspects — representatives of sports media and sports promotion firms — are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to the soccer functionaries (FIFA delegates) and other functionaries of FIFA sub-organizations - totaling more than USD 100 million," the FOJ statement said.
AP Sports Writer Rob Harris and Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Zurich, and Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
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