Matt Scott: US criminal investigation is a matter of life and death for FIFA

“Do you understand, sir, do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

There is something fundamental about the allegations in this FIFA crisis that recalls Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero Raskolnikov. Not a naturally vicious man, it was an intellectual compulsion that drove him to commit murder. He convinced himself that his crime would be justified due to his intellectual brilliance. As a virtuoso student, so he had persuaded himself, his was a great contribution to society. He could take life because he put so much in.

Now the first thing to say is that no one at FIFA has been accused of murder. Indeed, in very few cases have any of the allegations against individuals been proved. But as these as-yet-untested allegations mount it builds a picture that for some at least of those at the heart of FIFA there was a view that the organisation’s undoubted contribution to society could justify entirely egregious behaviour. Something turned a man like Chuck Blazer, the personable former CONCACAF secretary general – who is simply not the diabolical type – into a committed criminal.

Bribes were paid, duly laundered and squirrelled away in offshore accounts. This we know, since Blazer, a long-term former FIFA executive-committee member, admitted receiving at least $750,000 from an unnamed “co-conspirator” around the bidding for the 2010 World Cup. Moreover, he went on to confess to having facilitated bribes around the bidding process for the 1998 World Cup. These facts he did not dispute.

Many have been puzzling as to the identities of the several co-conspirators signalled by the US Department of Justice’s indictment. But that for now is irrelevant. The most pressing question for football is not who are they but how many are they, for that is what the very existence of FIFA and its constituent confederations now hangs.

When the DoJ last night unsealed the transcript of Blazer’s admitted charges, there was one shuddering revelation that should send shockwaves through FIFA and the world of football at large. “FIFA and its six constituent continental confederations… together with affiliated regional federations, national member associations and sports marketing companies, collectively constituted “an enterprise” as defined in Title 18, United States Code Section 1961(4), that is, a group of legal entities associated in fact.”

That is a seemingly innocuous statement but it should set off alarm bells around the football world. Section 1961 is attached to Chapter 96 of the US penal and criminal code. And that is the Chapter dealing with Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations, or RICO, the legislation the US authorities routinely uses to put mafia groups out of business.

The activities to which Blazer confessed participating in are characteristic of the mob. He pleaded guilty to racketeering, wire-fraud and money-laundering conspiracies, to evading income tax and to concealing offshore accounts. These carry very severe sentences: imprisonment for either up to 20 years or life, depending on the severity of the criminal activity.

But most worrying for FIFA and the confederations and member national associations the DoJ describes as “the enterprise” is the subsequent application for forfeiture of property. This can lead to sweeping confiscations of assets and even whole businesses by the US courts. As guidance notes to the RICO legislation explain: “In cases where the defendant is the sole owner of the enterprise, or in which the enterprise is a company that is also named as a defendant, the entire company may be subject to forfeiture under the RICO statute, subject only to the limits imposed by the Eighth Amendment.”

(That constitutional amendment should prevent first-instance courts applying what the highest legal authority would deem excessive or cruel punishments.)

In the 1980s, the Angiulo family fell foul of US law. They were affiliated to La Cosa Nostra owing to their association with the Patriarca Family. These guys really were heavy, involved in racketeering, illegal gambling, perverting the course of justice and, in some instances, conspiracy to murder. Upon conviction, they appealed the element of forfeiture of property, claiming there was no consistent pattern of illegal activity to justify the confiscation.

The appeal was dismissed as the court found: “Any interests in an enterprise, including the enterprise itself, are subject to forfeiture in their entirety, regardless of whether some portion of the enterprise is not tainted by the racketeering activity.”

This makes the following phrase from the Blazer transcript so important. “Though they also helped pursue the principal purpose of the enterprise, Blazer and his co-conspirators corrupted the enterprise by engaging in various criminal activities, including fraud, bribery and money laundering, in pursuit of personal gain.”

It follows that, should sufficient weight of evidence stack up against FIFA and be proven, it will face an existential threat under the RICO laws. Indeed, all national and international member associations and confederations – UEFA, CONMEBOL, the OFC, AFC, CAF and CONCACAF – even sports-marketing companies involved in distributing sports rights, have been named in the Blazer transcript as functioning parts of “the enterprise”. This means that anyone in football who has used the US financial system or soil in any illegal acts must now be aware: the feds are coming after them.

The dragnet of US justice is not confined to its own territory, either. As the highly impressive Attorney General, Loretta E Lynch, said last Wednesday in her speech to accompany the arrests of seven football officials around the FIFA Congress: “We are also seeking additional defendants. All of these defendants abused the US financial system and violated US law, and we intend to hold them accountable. Going forward, we welcome the opportunity to work with our partners around the world to bring additional co-conspirators and other corrupt individuals to justice.”

Blazer has been an informant to the FBI. Similarly, according to transcripts relating to the criminal charges against him, Daryan Warner, the son of Jack, who is one of the defendants in the case and a former FIFA vice-president, met with the investigating officers on at least 11 occasions between November 2012 and September 2013. What they have revealed will no doubt have advanced FBI inquiries in what has been a multiyear investigation.

Moreover, the former head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, was engaged by FIFA to investigate Mohammed Bin Hammam, the challenger to Sepp Blatter in the 2011 FIFA presidential election. Michael Garcia, a predecessor of Lynch in her former role as District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was previously the chief investigator of FIFA’s ethics committee. They have been invited by FIFA to look in to the FIFA closet. Time will tell what skeletons might have tumbled out.

Even so, it is an extremely complex undertaking to charge organisations under the RICO laws. Finding evidence of illegal cash movements by people committed to concealment is very difficult indeed. Proving motive and participation in a conspiracy is harder still, particularly as the allegations suggest sophisticated techniques have been employed to cover tracks.

But as I wrote last November (see related article below) the US clearly has the bit between its teeth. There is far more at play now in football than even its multibillion-dollar commercial activities demonstrate. Those who were taking bribes at FIFA’s top table clearly did not appreciate the high-stakes table they were playing at. If indeed individuals are found to be guilty of crimes, there must be punishment. But with the RICO terminology now being used, there is also a very serious threat that the entire structure of FIFA itself will be made to pay too.

Related article:

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1634807426labto1634807426ofdlr1634807426owedi1634807426sni@t1634807426tocs.1634807426ttam1634807426.