In the most dramatic charges of racketeering and corruption in sports history, American and Swiss authorities arrested top FIFA officials Wednesday morning, alleging that for 24 years the organization has run a dozen bribery schemes that totaled more than $100 million. The arrests and charges raise a variety of legal questions:
Q: FIFA has shrugged off allegations of corruption again and again. Will it succeed in dodging these charges?
A: No. With its cash reserves of $1.5 billion, FIFA is a powerful organization well able to defend itself and its executives. But these charges come from the U.S. Department of Justice and are based on a massive investigation. The individual who led the investigation, Loretta E. Lynch, is now the U.S. attorney general and enjoys the authority to allocate massive resources to the investigation and the resulting trial.
This will not end up as the kind of situation we often see in courts, when a wealthy defendant is able to hire the best attorneys who spend endless resources to overwhelm overworked and underpaid prosecutors. No, in this case, Lynch, her investigators and her prosecutors will match up well with any array of brilliant defense lawyers that the FIFA executives will hire.
The announcement of these charges, unlike like most federal investigations, came from Lynch and at Justice Department headquarters. Her role is critical. Was her role in this enormous investigation a factor in President Barack Obama's decision to name her the nation's top prosecutor? The investigation was near its conclusion when Obama nominated her. If the FIFA probe were a factor in his decision, then FIFA and its officials are facing what may be an insurmountable force of investigators and prosecutors.
Q: There are no charges against FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Has he escaped scrutiny?
A: No. If Blatter has not already hired a criminal defense attorney, he should do so in a hurry.
Four FIFA officials already have entered guilty pleas and forfeited more than $2 million of their ill-gotten gains. Any of these four officials, who include former FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, may yet produce evidence implicating Blatter. They will be cooperating with federal prosecutors as they try to reduce their time in the penitentiary. And they are not the only sources of possible evidence against Blatter, either. In addition to other indicted individuals, federal authorities raided and searched FIFA headquarters in Zurich and the CONCACAF headquarters in Miami. A top IRS official instrumental in the FIFA investigation made a point Wednesday of stating that the investigation is not over. "The IRS will follow the money wherever it may lead around the world," said Richard Weber, chief of the IRS' criminal investigation section. This is the last thing Blatter wanted to hear.
Q: How can the U.S. government indict people who are part of an international organization?
A: In short, anti-terrorism laws. These laws allowed U.S. federal agents to gather financial records that used to be unavailable; they allowed American authorities to bring charges almost anywhere that FIFA officials did anything, even something as seemingly insignificant as using a particular Internet browser; and these laws allowed U.S. officials to work with Swiss police. International boundaries and other obstacles can be eliminated when American officials rely on anti-terrorism rules. Lynch and her team of prosecutors and agents were imaginative and clever is their use of these tools as they assembled their evidence.
Q: How did the U.S. government assemble the evidence against FIFA?
A: Authorities used racketeering and anti-terrorism laws to gather evidence in their pursuit of a global conspiracy. The RICO racketeering law allowed federal prosecutors to use conspiracy allegations to link together, in a single case, individuals from 12 nations and to use evidence of one FIFA executive's chicanery against all of them. It is a bit tricky for prosecutors, but it will be difficult for even the best defense lawyers to answer. It also will allow the government, if it succeeds in convicting the indicted individuals, to seize personal assets in civil forfeiture actions.
Q: Where does this rank in the annals of corruption in the sports industry?
A: These charges and these arrests are clearly the most significant allegations of corruption in the industry's history. The fixing of the World Series by the Black Sox, the frauds of Alan Eagleson and the pedophilia scandal at Penn State University were historic scandals. But the breathtaking descriptions of bribery and kickbacks in the FIFA charges take sports corruption to a new and unprecedented level. Although many have suspected that things were not quite right at FIFA, these charges may be more dramatic and massive than anyone would have predicted.
Q: Can FIFA survive this scandal?
A: FIFA's enormous leverage over the world's most popular sport and its massive cash reserves may be enough to allow the organization to survive. The television contracts that are the heart of the business will remain lucrative for the sport and for the networks. But the scandal will eliminate a generation of executives, and there will be a mad scramble as others seek to gain the positions once occupied by those charged Wednesday. The likelihood is that FIFA will survive, but it will survive in an altered form with new leadership.