Wednesday, October 28, 2020

U.S. DoJ accused Qatar and Russia of bribing FIFA officials to win hosting rights for soccer World Cup

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After years of investigations and indictments, the United States Department of Justice on Monday said for the first time that representatives working for Russia and Qatar had bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights for the World Cup in men’s soccer.

Prosecutors made the accusations in an indictment charging three media executives and a sports marketing company with a number of crimes, including wire fraud and money laundering, in connection with bribes to secure television and marketing rights for international soccer tournaments.

The accusations were the latest in a years-long corruption case that has already produced convictions of numerous soccer officials and executives as well as depositions from former leaders of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Never before, though, have prosecutors so clearly described the scheme that helped deliver the votes that gave Russia and Qatar hosting rights for one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

The U.S. prosecutors on Monday explicitly revealed details about money paid to five members of FIFA’s top board ahead of the 2010 vote to choose Russia and Qatar as hosts. Russia defeated England and joint bids from Holland-Belgium and Spain-Portugal to host the 2018 men’s tournament. Qatar, a tiny desert state that has spent billions of dollars to prepare for the 2022 World Cup, defeated the United States in a runoff by a group of voters that had already been trimmed because two members had been secretly filmed agreeing to sell their votes.

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Three South American officials, according to the indictment, received payments to vote for Qatar.

One of the officials, Julio Grondona of Argentina, died in 2014. Another, Nicolás Leoz, died in Paraguay last year while under house arrest and fighting extradition to the United States. The third man, Ricardo Teixeira, the former leader of soccer in Brazil, remains in that country, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

Leoz and Teixeira were indicted in 2015 on charges related to bribery schemes to sell lucrative soccer rights to sports broadcasters.

The U.S. prosecutors also stated in Monday’s indictment that the former soccer official Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago, who has been fighting extradition to the U.S. since 2015, received $5 million through a string of shell companies to vote for Russia. Some of the money, the indictment said, came “from companies based in the United States that performed work on behalf of the 2018 Russia World Cup bid.”

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Rafael Salguero, a Guatemalan soccer official who pleaded guilty in 2016 to money laundering and fraud charges, was promised $1 million to give his vote to Russia, the indictment said.

None of the former soccer officials were immediately available for comment. Officials at Russia’s soccer federation and FIFA did not reply to an email sent after business hours to request comment.

Qatar has long denied allegations of acting improperly despite facing a slew of accusations since it started bidding for soccer’s biggest prize.

A FIFA document alluded to the bribery scheme last year. The names of Grondona, Leoz and Teixeira and references to payments they received were included in an ethics document justifying a lifetime suspension of Teixeira from FIFA.

The allegations against the South Americans mirror those made by Alejandro Burzaco, a former Argentine television executive who turned state’s witness after being named as a central figure in the soccer corruption case. He said at the New York trial of three other officials in 2017 that Leoz, Grondona and Teixeira had been paid to vote for Qatar.

More than half the people involved in the votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, including the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, have been accused of wrongdoing, though not necessarily criminally charged.

The choice of Qatar — a country with such hot summers that five years after the vote FIFA was forced to move the start of the 2022 World Cup to November — received most of the attention after the votes. But Russia, too, has faced allegations of improper bidding behavior.




Russian officials told a FIFA panel that investigated its bid that they could not turn over computers used during the process to a FIFA investigator because they had all been destroyed.

Last May, almost a year after Russia staged the World Cup, Gianni Infantino, who came out of relative obscurity to secure the FIFA presidency after the corruption scandal took down almost all of the organization’s senior leadership, received the Order of Friendship medal from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Two of the sports media executives who were charged in Monday’s indictments, Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez, formerly worked for international subsidiaries of 21st Century Fox. This was the first time the federal government had formally accused Fox, which won the rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, or any of its executives of wrongdoing.

During the 2017 trial, Burzaco accused Fox of bribing officials, an accusation that the company denied at the time.

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Lopez, 49, was the president and chief executive of Fox International Channels, and Martinez, 51, was the president of Fox Networks Group Latin America. According to the prosecutors, the pair participated in a scheme that paid millions of dollars in bribes to officials of South America’s continental soccer federation, in order to direct how the officials awarded broadcast rights for the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club soccer competition.

They are also accused of using inside information to help Fox win the English-language rights in the United States to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Lopez and Martinez “relied on loyalty secured through the payment of bribes,” according to the indictment. Among other things, the prosecutors said, the bribes helped Fox obtain confidential information “regarding bidding for the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments in the United States.”

Through their lawyers, Lopez and Martinez denied the charges and accused the U.S. government of pushing forward a thin case.

“The indictment contains nothing more than single paragraph about Mr. Lopez that alleges nothing remotely improper,” Matthew Umhofer, a lawyer for Lopez, said in statement. Steven McCool, a lawyer for Martinez, called the charges “nothing more than stale fiction.”

Neither the Fox Corporation nor Disney — which acquired most of Fox’s international assets in 2019 — immediately responded to a request for comment.

In 2011, it was announced that Fox had agreed to pay more than $400 million for the English-language rights in the United States to the men’s 2018 and 2022 World Cups, as well as to the women’s 2015 and 2019 World Cups. The win was a surprise, as ABC and ESPN had broadcast the men’s World Cup since 1994.

FIFA later awarded Fox the rights to broadcast the 2026 World Cup without holding an open bidding process, after Fox had challenged the federation’s decision to move the 2022 tournament to late fall from its traditional summer window.

Lopez left Fox in 2016 to start the podcast company Wondery; Martinez left in 2019.

Also charged Monday was Gerard Romy, a former executive of a Spanish media conglomerate, and Full Play, a Uruguay-based sports marketing company. Hugo Jinkis and Mariano Jinkis, the owners of Full Play, were charged individually in 2015 as part of the first FIFA indictments in the case.




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