By Andrew Warshaw
March 4 – FIFA is facing fresh crisis right at the heart of the body responsible for rooting out corruption after ethics committee member Juan Pedro Damiani was himself placed under investigation after being caught up in an explosive tax haven scandal dubbed the Panama Papers, one of the biggest leaks of a confidential database ever recorded.
The highly sensitive findings, the result a year-long investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and other media outlets, suggest that Damiani and his law firm provided legal assistance for at least seven offshore companies linked to fellow Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo, a former FIFA vice-president and one of the original Zurich Seven arrested last May as part of the US inquiry into wire fraud and money laundering that brought FIFA to its knees.
The headline-making Panama Papers will make grim and embarrassing reading for new FIFA president Gianni Infantino whose overriding priority is to clean up the organisation. Damiani, who has served on the ethics committee since 2006, is a member of the adjudicatory side of the panel and could therefore have been directly involved when a raft of career-shattering bans were meted out to prominent FIFA powerbrokers, most notably Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and ex-FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke.
Discovery of Damiani’s links to Figueredo, the former head of CONMEBOL, are the result of a leak of over 11 million documents from the internal files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm that specialises in helping the rich and powerful set up offshore companies, allegedly with the intention of laundering money, avoiding sanctions and evading tax though the company insists it has operated beyond reproach for 40 years and has never been charged with any criminal activity.
Altogether 107 media organisations in 78 countries have been analysing the documents which lay bare the day-to-day business at Mossack Fonseca.
Whilst the files do not show illegal conduct by Damiani or his law firm they certainly call into question his position on FIFA’s ethics committee and how he came to represent the offshore financial interests of someone who has now been accused of bribery.
With its credibility suddenly under threat, the ethics committee wasted no time announcing that it knew about Damiani’s activities beforehand and that it was looking into the case.
Damiani is understood to have informed ethics investigators (but only last month) that he has had business ties to Figueredo (who was arrested last May) but the panel has nevertheless now launched its own preliminary investigation into what observers might legitimately construe as conflict of interest.
“We confirm that on 19 March the investigatory chamber of the independent ethics committee was informed by the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber, Hans-Joachim Eckert, about becoming recently aware of a business relationship between the member of the adjudicatory chamber Juan Pedro Damiani, and Eugenio Figueredo Aguerre,” a statement said.
“After receiving the information Dr Cornel Borbely, chairman of the investigatory chamber of the ethics committee, has immediately opened a preliminary investigation to review the allegations in question. Dr Borbely is currently looking into said allegations in order to determine if there is a breach against the FIFA code of ethics and decide any further measures.”
Infantino has repeatedly spoken of a “new era” for football after taking over from Blatter at the end of February but is powerless to stop the separate ongoing US and Swiss probes into corruption at the heart of FIFA, of which there is certainly more to come. Now he also has to contend with FIFA’s main anti-corruption watchdog coming under fresh scrutiny.
According to the leaked documents, Damiani and his law firm, JP Damiani & Asociados, have acted for more than 200 offshore companies registered with Mossack Fonseca. The papers also apparently mention Jerome Valcke, sacked by FIFA in January and banned by the ethics committee for 12 years in February for a series of breaches. Swiss authorities have also opened criminal proceedings against Valcke concerning “various acts of criminal mismanagement”.
According to the BBC, one of the media organisations that worked on the story, Valcke is alleged to have used Mossack Fonseca to create and then be installed as the hidden owner of a British Virgin Islands company called Umbelina SA. The papers apparently claim Umbellina was used to purchase a €2.8 million yacht, which Valcke subsequently renamed ‘Ornella’, after his current wife.
There is nothing unlawful in acting for or setting up offshore companies and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Valcke. Owning an offshore bank account is not a crime but moving money around to avoid tax gives cause for concern over transparency and highlights the extent to which powerful individuals in all walks of life use offshore companies to hide their wealth.
“The records do not show illegal conduct by Damiani or his law firm. But they do raise new questions for Damiani and FIFA,” said the report issued by the ICIJ.
In all, according to the ICIJ, the leaked records also include “the names of nearly 20 high-profile soccer players, past and present, representing some of the globe’s best-known professional football clubs, including Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid”, as well as “current or former owners of at least 20 major soccer clubs, including Internazionale Milano and Boca Juniors”.
The most high-profile is Argentina and Barcelona star Lionel Messi, already due to stand trial in May, along with his father, charged with tax fraud for allegedly failing to declare €4.16 million in taxes related to image rights between 2007 and 2009. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Even Platini, serving a six-year ban from football along with Blatter, is reportedly cited in the documents with a claim that he used Mossack Fonseca to help him administer an offshore company created in Panama in 2007 though, again, no wrongdoing is suggested. Platini’s personal spokesman was quoted as saying that “as a Swiss resident since 2007, the Swiss authorities have a full knowledge of Michel Platini’s personal and tax situation including all his assets and bank accounts.”
Also featuring in the Panama Papers are Argentinian father and son Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, others who have been indicted by the US Department of Justice and are fighting extradition. They are mentioned in correspondence between Mossack Fonseca and Damiani’s law firm regarding an offshore company they owned called Cross Trading.
Although most of the leading football officials indicted in the US Department of Justice investigation have been extradited, in December Figueredo was extradited instead to his homeland where he has pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering in a separate case. Uruguayan prosecutors said in February that he had agreed to hand over more than $10 million in stocks and property in a deal to reduce his eventual punishment.
In his first reaction since being cited in to the Panana Papers, Damiani told Reuters that he broke off relations with Figueredo as soon as the latter was accused of corruption.
“We (had) worked with Figueredo (but) when the (FIFA) issue came to light we immediately ended a professional link,” he said. “My (law) firm is a firm of 60 people, not just me. … Until May 2015, Figueredo appeared to be a straight person.”
Contact the writer of this story at email@example.com