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Top FIFA Officials Arrested in Pre-Dawn Raid at Zurich Hotel

Swiss authorities began a new series of pre-dawn arrests Thursday in the broad investigation, led by United States officials, into corruption in international soccer. Sixteen people were expected to be charged by day's end, law enforcement officials said, nearly doubling the size of an already huge case that has upended FIFA, soccer's multibillion-dollar governing body.

Some of the arrests took place at the same luxury hotel where other FIFA officials were arrested in May. Swiss police entered the hotel, the Baur au Lac, through a side door at 6 a.m. local time. A hotel manager told visitors in the lobby they had to leave the property because of "an extreme situation."

The police were targeting current and former senior soccer officials on charges that include racketeering, money laundering and fraud, authorities said. The new charges were expected to hit South and Central American soccer leaders particularly hard, the officials said.

The Justice Department confirmed in a news release that Alfredo Hawit of Honduras and Juan Ángel Napout of Paraguay were among those charged. Mr. Hawit is the president of Concacaf, the regional confederation that includes North and Central America and the Caribbean. Mr. Napout is the president of Conmebol, the South American confederation. Both are FIFA vice presidents and members of the organization's governing executive committee.

As high profile as the hotel arrests were, the charges to be announced Thursday are not concentrated on people in Zurich. Among the people charged as new defendants are Ricardo Teixeira, a former president of the Brazil soccer federation, and Marco Polo del Nero, that federation's current president, according to several people familiar with the charges.

In announcing plans for a news conference by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and other law enforcement officials on Thursday afternoon, the Justice Department mentioned only Mr. Hawit and Mr. Napout. Mr. Hawit assumed control of Concacaf last spring, following the indictment of Jeffrey Webb, the confederation's former president. Mr. Napout's two predecessors at Conmebol president also were indicted in May.

Thursday's charges, coming as FIFA's leaders gathered in Zurich, served as a high-profile reminder that despite the organization's promises of reform, soccer's top officials remain under intense legal scrutiny by the investigation, which involves several government agencies, notably the United States Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York, New York field office of the F.B.I. and the I.R.S.

"FIFA became aware of the actions taken today by the U.S. Department of Justice," FIFA said in a statement. "FIFA will continue to cooperate fully with the U.S. investigation as permitted by Swiss law, as well as with the investigation being led by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General."

The full roster of people charged Thursday morning was not immediately clear. Law enforcement officials said the list did not include Sepp Blatter, FIFA's longtime president, or Jérôme Valcke, his suspended deputy.

Swiss authorities confirmed on Thursday morning that they had taken two FIFA officials into custody and that those individuals were accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes related to the sale of marketing rights for World Cup qualifying matches and soccer tournaments in Latin America. Switzerland's Federal Office of Justice later confirmed that the officials were Mr. Hawit and Mr. Napout, and that both men were contesting their possible extradition to the United States. Because they are, Switzerland will ask the United States to submit formal extradition requests; the Americans have 40 days to complete those requests.

In May, United States officials announced charges against 18 people of 12 nationalities. They described two decades of corruption in which officials rigged World Cup bids and steered marketing and broadcast contracts in exchange for bribes — paid out through convoluted financial deals and briefcases full of cash. Mr. Blatter quickly announced plans to resign.

The United States Justice Department was expected to unseal indictments in the case as early as Thursday, according to several law enforcement officials who were briefed on the case and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation. F.B.I. and United States tax agents, along with federal prosecutors in New York, have spent years building the case against FIFA. They promised this spring to rid the organization of corruption.

United States authorities have long predicted more charges in the case, but the number of people involved — nearly as many as were charged in May — was not expected.

The arrests came about three hours before members of FIFA's executive committee were to begin the second part of their two-day meeting to discuss governance reforms. The mood among the soccer officials after Wednesday's meetings was mostly upbeat; one high-ranking official said there was a "sense of purpose" from the leadership during the meetings, a feeling that the reforms would be a strong step in the right direction after the turmoil of the past six months.

On Wednesday night, a group of about 40 to 50 soccer officials — including the executive committee members and their spouses or companions, as well as many top FIFA administrators such as Markus Kattner, the acting secretary general, and Marco Villiger, the organization's chief lawyer — attended a lavish dinner at Sonnenberg, an upscale restaurant known for its view of the city. A wide array of choices were available — the restaurant is known for its meat dishes — and afterward a number of officials went to the bar at the Baur au Lac for the customary nightcap.

The hotel, which sits along the banks of Lake Zurich, gained notoriety after it was the site of the arrests in May but has had a long relationship with FIFA. In the aftermath of the May arrests, FIFA approached soccer officials who were coming to Zurich for business trips in subsequent months and offered the choice of booking accommodation at another hotel in the city (provided, of course, the rates were not substantially higher than the negotiated package rates FIFA receives at the Baur au Lac, where rooms for the public start at $650).

A few officials accepted the offer, choosing to stay at other hotels, such as the Park Hyatt, during meetings in July and September. For the most part, however, tradition ruled and, despite its history, the Baur au Lac was full with soccer leaders yet again this week.

As one official, speaking in the lobby of the hotel on Wednesday, said, "Things change slowly around here."

Members of FIFA's executive committee are meeting in Zurich this week to approve a set of reform measures. The group is under pressure not just from investigators but also from sponsors. Five World Cup sponsors, including Adidas, McDonald's and Coca-Cola, signed a letter this week urging FIFA to ensure independent oversight of the reforms.

A new election to select a replacement for Mr. Blatter is set for February. He has been under suspension, along with several other top officials, since Switzerland announced in late September that he was the focus of a separate criminal inquiry. Several other countries, including Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, have opened investigations of their own.

This spring's arrests were met around the world with a mixture of praise and derision. Many soccer fans were thrilled that American law enforcement officials had set their sights on FIFA, which had been dogged by corruption allegations for years but faced few consequences. Mr. Blatter, however, said the charges were retribution for United States's not being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. "It doesn't smell good," he said.

More broadly, the case raised questions about how the American government interprets its own authority to prosecute people for crimes committed overseas. To do so, the law requires some link between the crime and the United States. In the FIFA case, the government said American banks were used in the scheme. That has been enough to establish jurisdiction in other cases, a precedent that has been particularly useful in prosecuting international terrorism suspects.

Whether or not an American courthouse was the ideal venue for the case, Justice Department have said, it became clear that FIFA was operating corruptly for years and no other country was doing anything about it. "They clearly thought the U.S. was a safe financial haven for them," Ms. Lynch said this spring.

[Source: By Rebecca R. Ruiz, Matt Apuzzo and Sam Borden, The New York Times, Zurich, 03Dec15]

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Corruption and Organized Crime
small logoThis document has been published on 04Dec15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.