United States attorney general Loretta Lynch denied the timing of the charges against nine Fifa officials and five corporate executives for allegedly pocketing $150 million in bribes over 24 years had anything to do with the global footballing body's presidential elections tomorrow.
At a major news conference more typical of charges linked to organised crime or terrorism, the highest ranking US law-enforcement officials unveiled 47 counts of corruption against the 14 men.
Fifa, long suspected of chicanery over contract- and vote- rigging, particularly in the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, has felt the full-blown force of America’s prosecutorial powers.
Charges of corruption in the multibillion world of international football, one of the first major investigations by the US department of justice since Lynch started last month, marks the culmination of a three-year inquiry started by her as US attorney in Brooklyn.
The indictment, out of the eastern district of New York where Lynch was attorney until moving to Washington, levels charges including racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy against soccer officials whom, prosecutors claim, sought to enrich themselves in exchange for commercial deals linked to big tournaments.
The 12 alleged criminal schemes at the centre of the long-running conspiracy include plots to rig the bidding for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 2011 Fifa presidential elections and the 2016 Centennial Cop America, scheduled to be played in the US.
Seven of the 14 accused men were arrested in dawn raids by Swiss police in Zurich, where they were due to attend meetings around the next Fifa presidential elections tomorrow.
Timing of charges
Asked about the timing, Lynch told reporters prosecutors “resolve cases when the evidence comes together” and could not take the forthcoming ballot into consideration.
Sepp Blatter, the 79-year-old Fifa president who is seeking a fifth four-year term against lone challenger Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, is not among those charged by the New York prosecutors.
One of the seven detained in Switzerland is Jeffrey Webb, a Fifa vice-president and head of Concacaf, the entity governing soccer in North and Central America. He is from the Cayman Islands and since 2013 has owned a residence in Georgia in the US.
He was arrested with other international soccer officials: Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas, a UK citizen based in the Cayman Islands, Eugenio Figueredo, a dual citizen of the US and Uruguay – also a Fifa vice-president – Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and José Maria Marin of Brazil.
The other high-profile figure charged is former Fifa vice- president Jack Warner, the Trinidadian who is a legal permanent resident in the US. Nicolás Leoz of Paraguay, a former Fifa executive committee member and one-time president of Conmebol, which organises South America's international tournament, is also named.
Warner has been accused of soliciting $10 million in bribes from South Africa in return for hosting the 2010 World Cup. He has said he is “innocent of any charges”. Four individuals, including Warner’s son Daryll, and two companies have already pleaded guilty and may co-operate as prosecutors try to secure more convictions.
The others are sports media and marketing company executives, Alejandro Burzaco of Argentina, Aaron Davidson, a US citizen who works with a Florida company, Hugo Jinkis and his son Mariano Jinkis, both of Argentina, and José Margulies of Brazil.
“These individuals and organisations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organisation overseeing soccer worldwide,” said Lynch.
Her former colleague, Michael Garcia, onetime US attorney for New York's southern district, had been asked by Fifa to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the awarding of the World Cups to Russia and Qatar. After a 19-month investigation, Fifa suppressed his report, publishing a 42-page summary that Garcia branded as "incomplete and erroneous".