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Corruption claims US intervention could boost FIFA clean-up

FIFA President Sepp Blatter is hoping for a fifth term at the head of the scandal-ridden organisation

(Keystone)

Switzerland has dawdled too long in cleaning up FIFA, world football’s tainted governing body. That’s the view of Swiss anti-corruption lawyer Mark Pieth and campaigning politician Roland Büchel, who both welcome the intervention by the United States. 

“We asked FIFA to clean up its act several years ago, while it still had time to do so,” Büchel told swissinfo.ch. “It failed to do so and now it seems that the US is doing that for FIFA and for Switzerland. It is a pity because now the whole world is looking at Switzerland.”  

The parliamentarian from the conservative right Swiss People’s Party has fought to clean up Zurich-based FIFA for years, fearing that the litany of scandals surrounding it is portraying its host country in a poor light. 

Wednesday’s police raid on the prestigious Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, during which seven top FIFA officials were carted away for questioning and possible extradition to the US, is the first tangible evidence that individuals may actually be brought to justice for alleged corruption. 

“It shows once again that when the US wants results, it gets them,” Büchel said. 

Intervention necessary 

Mark Pieth, a professor of law at the University of Basel, also believes that the US involvement in the case is crucial. Pieth has a long history of tracking down fraud as a one time member of the independent inquiry into the soured Iraq oil for food programme and the Financial Action Task Force on money laundering. 

Pieth also has knowledge of FIFA’s workings, having been commissioned by the sporting organisation in 2011 to overhaul its oversight structures in the light of continuous corruption allegations. 

“A lot of the allegations are old, but the process has now been transformed from the private justice of a sporting association into the arena of public justice. We have new players on the scene with states getting active – finally, one could say,” Pieth told swissinfo.ch. 

“This has parallels with the reform of the United Nations after the oil for food scandal in Iraq and also the reform of the Vatican Bank. In my opinion, neither would have cleaned up its act without national jurisdictions getting active and applying pressure.” 

But Pieth adds the caveat that the US might struggle to prove that they have proper legal jurisdiction to investigate and punish acts of corruption. 

“The US has a very liberal attitude towards assuming jurisdiction, but in this case I want to see exactly on what grounds they are basing this assumption,” he said. “I have a feeling that their jurisdiction might be more limited than they assume.” 

Weak response 

In the meantime, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office has launched its own investigation against an unspecified number of “persons unknown”, surrounding allegations of corruption during the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, which went to Russia and Qatar respectively. 

In this case, the investigation was prompted by FIFA itself, which issued a complaint on November 18 last year. The Federal Prosecutor's Office is therefore treating FIFA as the “injured party”, while coordinating with the US investigation to secure suspects and evidence. 

“With this procedure, the [Federal Prosecutor's Office] is contributing to the struggle against corrupt behaviour and money laundering,” a statement read. 

For his part, FIFA's Swiss president Sepp Blatter released a statementexternal link on Wednesday evening in which he welcomed the actions and the investigations by the US and Swiss authorities and stressed that "such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game".

Both Büchel and Pieth are unconvinced that the Swiss authorities have gone far enough or fast enough to nip the issue in the bud. Pieth compares Switzerland’s soft touch regulatory approach to sporting organisations to acting like a “pirate’s haven”. 

In 2008, a Zug court found that several FIFA executives, including former FIFA president João Havelange, had taken millions of dollars in bribes from the now defunct ISMM-ISL sports marketing company. The defendants walked free after agreeing to pay the money back – a deal that also saw the court protect their anonymity. 

Four years later the gagging order was lifted on appeal by several media outlets. 

Toughening up 

In recent months Switzerland has acted to protect its reputation from further damage by enacting tougher legislation governing non-corporate entities. 

In December, parliament passed an act that labelled powerful executives at such bodies “politically exposed persons” (PEPs). This gives the Swiss authorities access to bank accounts of these individuals. 

Next week parliament will debate new anti-corruption measures that would further enshrine bribery as a criminal offence. At present, the authorities can act against bribery only if there is an official complaint. 

The new law, which has some political opposition, would enable prosecutors to investigate rumours without the need for a complaint.

swissinfo.ch

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