Nearly a decade after police officers busted soccer officials out of a luxury hotel in Zurich at dawn, revealing a corruption scandal that has rocked the world’s most popular sport, the case risks going into pieces.
The dramatic twist comes over the question of whether US prosecutors went too far in applying US law to a group of people, many of them foreign nationals, who defrauded foreign organizations while carrying out corruption schemes across the world.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year limited a key law in the case. Then, in September, a federal judge, citing this, overturned the convictions of two defendants linked to football corruption. Now, several former soccer officials, including some who have paid millions of dollars in fines and served time in prison, argue that the bribery schemes for which they were convicted are no longer considered a crime in the United States.
Emboldened by the annulled convictions, they are demanding that their records be expunged and their money returned.
Their hopes are tied to the September cases, in which the two defendants benefited from two recent Supreme Court rulings that rejected federal prosecutors’ application of the law at play in soccer cases and offered rare guidance on what it is known as honest services fraud. The defendants in the soccer trial had been found to have engaged in acts of corruption that deprived organizations outside the United States of the honest services of their employees, which constituted fraud at the time. But the judge ruled that the court’s new guidance meant such actions were no longer prohibited under American law.
This blow to the case, which federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are contesting, could turn the story of world soccer’s deep corruption — detailed in a 236-page indictment and proven through 31 guilty pleas and four trial convictions — into a equally compelling story. the long arm of American justice that goes too far.
“It’s pretty significant,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Columbia University, “since the judge rejected the government’s basic theory.” I called the opinion “surprising but well-reasoned”.
Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York are preparing to push back. “This office will vigorously defend convictions,” a spokesman, John Marzulli, said Thursday, “and will not stand aside if violators seek to claw back millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.”
In a court filing this month, prosecutors argued that the federal judge who presided over the FIFA cases, Pamela K. Chen, had misread the Supreme Court. The foreign defendants, they said, had “substantial ties and activities to the United States” and had demonstrated that they knew what they had done was a crime.
The legal debate comes at a time of growing concern that global sports organizations such as FIFA, the Swiss-based global soccer governing body, operate in a world of their own, untouchable by the authorities. Systemic corruption among global football’s top leaders was extensively documentedBut until the Justice Department built its complex case and filed charges in 2015, no government had risked tackling it so ambitiously, with charges spanning three continents.
Once public, the FIFA investigation became one of the largest cross-border corruption cases in U.S. history. This required the cooperation of foreign authorities, who helped make arrests and extradite defendants to the United States, and revealed decades of corruption; allegations of secret contracts, loss of money and court intimidation; and official confirmation that millions of dollars in cash had swayed the votes to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
The case was a boon for white-collar lawyers and a stroke of luck for international sport. It has bolstered the profiles of American prosecutors, who have been praised for creatively applying the U.S. Honest Services Wire Fraud Act, which prohibits people from betraying their employers by engaging in bribery and kickback schemes that funnel money in their pockets. The legal strategy was widely seen as a new way to counter foreign business bribery.
The allegations led to an overhaul of FIFA’s leadership, including the ouster of its longtime president Sepp Blatter, and made celebrities of the main players in the case. Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney general at the time, was nicknamed FIFA-Jägerin, or FIFA hunter, by the German media.
This was not the first time the Justice Department had brought complicated charges with global implications. But its reach and enormous focus on other parts of the world raised questions about why federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had chosen to pour years of resources into the investigation. As justification, prosecutors pointed to the defendants’ use of US banks and, more generally, the “affront to international principles” that Lynch said their schemes represented.
Now, as U.S. prosecutors prepare to defend their work before a federal appeals court, the idea that U.S. law can apply where others have been unable, or unwilling, to act is up for debate. . That has opened the door to a dramatic possibility: that prominent sports officials and businessmen who asked for or accepted bribes could see their convictions cast aside and their fortunes returned.
In an interview last week, former Paraguayan football official Juan Ángel Napout said he had been convicted of setting an example. “Why me?” He said. “They needed someone, and it was me.”
Napout paid more than $4 million to the U.S. government, which has so far forwarded more than $120 million to FIFA and has pledged to release tens of millions more. Return home to Asuncion Since his release from prison last summer, Napout, 65, has been calling for the United States to overturn his conviction and return his money.
Mr. Napout has been incarcerated longer than anyone else involved in the sprawling case, his once-luxurious lifestyle upended when he became a cook in a Florida prison. He said he was not considering an appeal until the acquittals hearing in September, and that he is only proceeding as best as possible for his family “so my record will be clean.”
Although the government’s appeal of the recent acquittals is pending – an open issue to be resolved before Napout’s request is addressed – he is not alone in seizing the opportunity to seek a clean slate.
In recent weeks, José Maria Marin, a former Brazilian soccer official who served time in prison and paid millions in fines, and Alfredo Hawit, a former Honduran soccer official who pleaded guilty and collaborated with the government, have made similar requests.
In their legal documents, they reiterate some of the arguments they made when they were first charged, when lawyers objected to what they called excessive use of a vague law by U.S. prosecutors. At the time, some pointed out that, in countries like Brazil, paying bribes in a private business transaction to secure a deal or contract is not uncommon – or illegal.
As the legal battle continues, prominent opponents in the case have moved on. The football organizations involved have new leaders. In 2019, four years after issuing a stern warning to the still uncharged figures in the case – “You will not wait us out” – she joined the American law firm Paul, Weiss and became a supporter of the new FIFA. At least twice in recent years you have addressed FIFA directly, praising the organization’s “renewed commitment to transparency and ethical behavior.”
Ms. Lynch did not respond to a request for comment.
But recently, FIFA has come under renewed scrutiny for bypassing standard processes, such as when it actually awarded valuable hosting rights for the 2034 World Cup to Saudi Arabia without competitive bidding. FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who rose to the top after Blatter’s ouster, has explored the possibility of extending limits on his time in the top job.
The outcome of the new appeals, which will be argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, could have implications not only for convicted defendants like Napout, but also for those who were charged but remained at large, safe out of prison. reach of the United States authorities. They include longtime FIFA broker Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago; Argentine television executives Hugo and Mariano Jinkis; and former Brazilian soccer officials Marco Polo del Nero and Ricardo Teixeira.
Also at stake is at least $200 million paid by the convicts; part of the sum was earmarked for FIFA, seen as a victim of corruption within it, and earmarked for causes including football programs for women, youth and disabled people. FIFA said $50 million has already been allocated to the projects.
Paul Tuchmann, a former prosecutor on the case now at the law firm Wiggin and Dana, called the decision to acquit the two defendants “a hiccup” but said that no matter what the appeals court decides, “there’s no going back over time and erase the impact.”
However, Tuchmann added, undoing the government’s work would have broad consequences – within global sport and beyond.
“People with a certain amount of cunning will understand that the US criminal justice system will not touch them,” he said. “And I think that’s a shame.”
Ken Bensinger contributed to the reporting.