Ex-FIFA Executive’s Trial Focused on Sardinian Villa, Payments

This content was published on September 14, 2020 - 04:00

(Bloomberg) -- A former senior FIFA executive goes on trial in Switzerland this week, accused of criminal mismanagement and accepting more than $1 million in cash in return for favorable awarding of media rights to future World Cups.

Jerome Valcke, ex-secretary general of FIFA, is accused of taking bribes, falsification of documents and aggravated criminal mismanagement. A Greek businessman, Konstantinos Nteris, is charged with bribing Valcke, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of BeIn Media Group, is accused of inciting Valcke to not tell FIFA about favors he received.

The trial, which starts Monday, is the culmination of a three-year investigation mired in setbacks including dropped charges, the late addition of a new one, and a FIFA-related scandal that has embroiled Switzerland’s top prosecutor. The 2017 probe was opened amid broad allegations of corruption at world soccer’s governing body that forced Joseph “Sepp” Blatter to resign as president. Most of FIFA’s board was replaced after the bribery probes resulted in early morning raids in high-end hotels near its headquarters.

A spokesman for Blatter declined to comment. The former head of FIFA, who was given a six-year ban by the organization in 2016, has previously denied wrongdoing.

“Sport has lived in a legal vacuum and Swiss authorities had no good legal basis to tackle sports corruption until the FIFA scandal broke,” said Jens-Sejer Andersen, international director of Aarhus, Denmark-based sports governance research institute, Play The Game.

“Given this is the first Swiss trial on the topic, I think it’s really vital we get much more detailed information about how FIFA works,” he said.

Valcke is accused of getting help from Al-Khelaifi to secure the 500,000 euro ($595,000) down payment on a villa in Sardinia, which the FIFA secretary then allegedly used for free for 18 months. Valcke had an obligation to report the assistance, and failed to do, “thus unlawfully enriching himself,” the prosecutors said.

Al-Khelaifi, who is also chairman of top flight soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, was charged in February with inciting Valcke to commit aggravated criminal mismanagement for allegedly encouraging him to not report the help he got.

Nteris faces the incitement charge as well as one for bribery for having paid Valcke 1.25 million euros in three installments.

In return, Valcke is alleged to have exploited his position between 2013 and 2015 to favor his preferred media partners in the awarding of Italian and Greek media rights for 12 years of FIFA tournaments.

Dropped Charge

Swiss prosecutors dropped charges of bribery against Valcke and Al-Khelaifi in connection with the villa and a Cartier watch the Qatari allegedly gave Valcke in February because the suspicion was “not substantiated.” FIFA had withdrawn part of its complaint against the pair following an “amicable agreement,” in the words of Swiss prosecutors, between FIFA and Al-Khelaifi. The bribery charges against Valcke and Nteris remain, as does the allegation Valcke failed to report the help he got with the villa.

“Despite the most forensic public, private, lawful and unlawful scrutiny and smears of our client since 2016, no charges have ever been proven; the main original charge of bribery was completely and conclusively dropped,” lawyers for Al-Khelaifi said in a statement. “The recently submitted secondary ‘reporting’ charge is manifestly artificial and lacks basis in law or fact -- we have no doubt that our client will be proven innocent.”

Patrick Hunziker, Valcke’s lawyer, rejected the remaining accusations at the time of his February indictment.

“Valcke had no influence over the award of media rights nor did he in any way harm FIFA,” he said. Hunziker didn’t return messages seeking comment ahead of the trial.

Saverio Lembo, FIFA’s lawyer for the trial at the Federal Criminal Court, declined to comment and referred queries to the Zurich-based organization, which filed the original criminal complaint against the three men in 2016. It didn’t return a message seeking comment.

Alec Reymond, Nteris’s lawyer, won’t attend the trial because his client is unwell, and asked for a delay in the proceedings against Nteris. More substantively, however, Reymond said that the ongoing scandal involving Swiss Attorney-General Michael Lauber’s meetings with FIFA executives means the principle of “equality of parties” can no longer be respected.

“The court and the defendants are today still in the dark about the content of these secret discussions into which a criminal investigation has been ordered,” Reymond said.

Policing the Police

Lauber resigned his post in July, and Stefan Keller, a specially-appointed prosecutor, is seeking to open a criminal probe over a series of undocumented meetings Lauber held with FIFA President Gianni Infantino as part of his investigation into corruption at the organization.

Keller is already investigating Infantino and another Swiss prosecutor who worked with Lauber on the FIFA case. Soccer’s governing body has previously said the meetings were legitimate and legal, and didn’t respond to a request for comment on the accusation against Infantino.

Lauber was negligent, made false statements and “knowingly concealed” a meeting with Infantino, a Swiss court ruled in July. Lauber said he accepted the court’s decision but “rejected the accusation of lying.”

“A separate scandal is why has not one FIFA trial taken place in Switzerland until now,” Play The Game’s Andersen said. “So kudos to at least to the Swiss Parliament for being willing to look into the suspicions raised around Michael Lauber’s role as the head of the investigations.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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