US and Swiss Law Enforcement Arrest Top FIFA Officials on Bribery Charges

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 28, 2015

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The United States Department of Justice made headlines this week by issuing sweeping indictments against several top FIFA officials after an investigation suggested that leaders of the worldwide soccer organization received more than $150 million in bribes to award choice events to countries willing to pay. In a joint effort by the FBI and officials in Switzerland, the DOJ executed warrants for the arrest and extradition of members of FIFA who now face criminal charges in federal court on corruption, racketeering, and fraud.

World Cup Bids the Center of FIFA Bribery Scandal

Federal prosecutors built their case against FIFA after a lengthy investigation which spawned nearly four years ago from the unrelated efforts of a joint task force between the FBI and the Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Task Force which focused on Russian organized crime.  According to US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, evidence in that case revealed corruption in the upper echelons of FIFA, largely centered around bribes received in exchange for rewarding locations of highly profitable international soccer tournaments, most notably the World Cup.  In an announcement about the charges, Lynch said, “These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide. They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”

One such allegation involved the 2004 vote to determine which country would host the 2010 World Cup.  At the time, Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa were competing for the privilege, and a single vote among the FIFA governing body could carry significant weight in the outcome.  According to federal prosecutors, Jack Warner, a committee member from Trinidad and Tobago sold his vote to South Africa for a reported $10 million payout to a group controlled by Mr. Warner.  The money was later redirected for his personal use, and South Africa was awarded the 2010 bid.  Similar allegations surround Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and prosecutors claim that the location selection of virtually every international tournament over the last several decades has involved bribery, bringing the total amount of money exchanged to a staggering $150 million.

FIFA Officials Arrested

In a coordinated effort between Swiss authorities and the FBI, FIFA branches in Miami Beach and Zurich, Switzerland were raided by law enforcement and top officials of the powerful soccer organization were brought into custody.  Among those arrested are FIFA vice president Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, vice president Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, executive committee member Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, and executive committee member Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago. In all, fourteen members of the FIFA governing body were named in a 47-count indictment accusing them of bribery, racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud.

Longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter of Switzerland was not arrested or included in the indictment, and has denied all knowledge of the decades-long bribery at the organizations highest levels.  In a statement, Blatter announced the suspension of all accused members of FIFA who were arrested, and promised that the investigation by US and Swiss authorities would make the sport stronger than ever by helping FIFA clean house of corruption.  In a public statement, a defiant Blatter told the press, “We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it. But it must also fall to me to be responsible for the reputation of our entire organization, and to find a way to fix things. We cannot allow the reputation of FIFA to be dragged through the mud any longer. It has to stop here and now.”

US Exercises Its Jurisdiction over FIFA Officials

According to DOJ officials, the first round of arrests was only the beginning of the fallout from its investigation into FIFA corruption.  Calling the arrests the beginning and not the end, Lynch and other federal prosecutors vowed to continue the investigation until the full extent of FIFA corruption was revealed.  Despite FIFA’s status as an international organization, and the fact that the defendants are not citizens or residents of the United States, the DOJ has authority to arrest and prosecute members of a conspiracy that involves transactions made on US soil.  According to investigators, at least part of FIFA’s bribery activities occurred in New York, opening the door to jurisdiction over all alleged members of the corruption.

Given the massive worldwide popularity of soccer, there is ongoing reluctance to accept the charges against FIFA’s top officials.  As the US and Swiss investigation continues, the accusations against the world’s most powerful sporting organization will undoubtedly draw heated debate between its supporters and opponents.  While the investigation and criminal proceedings will not influence FIFA’s day-to-day operations or the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, law enforcement sent a strong message that it is keeping a close eye on soccer’s governing body.

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