The suitcase was waiting in a hotel room in Paris, the cash inside neatly bundled into $10,000 stacks.
The money, U.S. authorities allege, was payment for one of the most sought-after prizes in world soccer: a nod from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, to host the World Cup.
That allegation, involving a bid by South Africa for the 2010 Cup, is contained in a stunning 47-count indictment unsealed Wednesday by the U.S. Justice Department, the result of a years-long investigation of corruption at FIFA.
While scandals are nothing new at FIFA, the portrait of corruption painted by federal prosecutors rivals the worst in sports history for length and breadth. Money laundering, racketeering, bribery, kickbacks and more were all embraced by FIFA officials as business as usual, the authorities say.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted, both abroad and here in the United States,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials.”
One of those officials, according to the indictment, was a former history teacher from Trinidad and Tobago named Jack Warner -- the man for whom that suitcase was allegedly waiting.
A soccer official in his native country, Warner had won an election in 1990 to become president of Concacaf, the soccer confederation that oversees Central and North America.
In 2004, FIFA’s leadership gathered to consider bids from countries that wanted to host the 2010 World Cup. Among the hopefuls were Morocco, Egypt and South Africa.
Warner had ties to the South Africans, who had failed in a bid for the 2006 World Cup. One of his relatives had organized friendly matches in South Africa for teams in Warner’s confederation, according to the indictment. So Warner authorized the relative to fly to Paris to meet with a high-ranking South African bid official in a hotel, where prosecutors said the suitcase full of cash was waiting.
Years later, in 2011, Warner directed Caribbean football officials to pick up a “gift” -- an envelope containing $40,000 in cash -- ahead of the election for FIFA’s president, according to the indictment. He became angry, it said, when he learned that a Caribbean official had told a Concacaf official in New York about the cash.
“There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou. If you’re pious, open a church, friends,” he said, according to the indictment. “Our business is our business.”
‘No Due Process’
Warner, who stood down from all soccer posts in 2011, said in a statement that he was innocent of any charges.
“I have been afforded no due process and I have not even been questioned in this matter,” he said in the statement. “I have walked away from the politics of world football to immerse myself in the improvement of lives in this country where I shall, God willing, die.”
In all, 14 people were indicted on charges that include racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering schemes. Four others pleaded guilty.
In a related case, Swiss authorities said they were examining allegations of money laundering and criminal mismanagement related to selecting host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, awarded to Russia and Qatar, respectively. Swiss authorities seized electronic data and documents from FIFA’s Zurich headquarters on Wednesday.
FIFA’s president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, wasn’t charged, though several members of his inner circle were.
“Such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” Blatter said Wednesday, in remarks on FIFA’s website. Concacaf declined to comment on specific allegations, adding in a statement on its website that it is deeply concerned with the developments and will continue to cooperate with authorities.
Most of the allegations focus on soccer officials in the Americas, where prosecutors say leaders of regional confederations solicited and accepted bribes from sports marketing firms that seek media and marketing contracts for major regional tournaments, a major source of revenue for soccer confederations.
Over a 24-year period, FIFA officials conspired with the soccer marketing agencies for bribes and kickbacks in exchange for contracts, often concealing the payments through shell companies, offshore accounts or other schemes, prosecutors said.
Indeed, when one set of soccer leaders is ousted for corruption, the new leaders started soliciting bribes almost immediately after taking office, even as they pledge reform, the indictment said.
For instance, in May 2012, FIFA vice president Jeffrey Webb, of the Cayman Islands, was elected president of Concacaf. He promised a new culture of transparency and accountability that would depart markedly from Warner’s tenure.
Within months, Webb hired a new general secretary who had “the competence and integrity to implement our road map to reform,” Webb was quoted as saying in an article on mlssoccer.com. That executive was Enrique Sanz, who had worked at a sports marketing company called Traffic Sports USA.
Sanz promised a new day as well, vowing to create a more transparent and trustworthy Concacaf. “We’ll create committees on ethics, integrity and transparency that will be above us all,” Goal.com quoted him as saying shortly after he was hired.
The indictment painted a different picture about Webb and a person it identified only as “Co-Conspirator #4” -- a former Traffic Sports USA executive who was hired as Concacaf’s general secretary in July 2012. Those and other details from the indictment match information from official releases about Sanz.
Sanz wasn’t charged or mentioned by name in the indictment and couldn’t be located for comment. Webb couldn’t be reached for comment.
“Almost immediately after taking office,” the indictment alleged, “both men resumed their involvement in criminal activities.”
Co-Conspirator #4 quickly began negotiating with a former colleague at Traffic Sports USA for media rights to Concacaf tournaments -- including its main competition, the Gold Cup -- the indictment said. At Webb’s behest, the co-conspirator negotiated a bribe for Webb and a second bribe a year later, when the contract was renewed, it said.
Webb used some of the money from bribes to build a pool at his suburban Atlanta home and to buy real estate in Stone Mountain, Ga., the indictment says.
Co-Conspirator #4 allegedly benefited, too. An associate of Webb’s, Costas Takkas, bought him an “expensive painting” at a New York gallery, the indictment says. Takkas, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was charged as part of the government’s case.
In the battle to win the 2010 World Cup, more than one country was wrangling for Warner’s favor.
Months before the May 2004 vote on the venue, a representative from Morocco offered Warner $1 million in exchange for his vote, prosecutors said. South Africa countered: High-ranking officials at FIFA, the South African government and the South African bid committee had arranged for a $10 million payment from the government to the Caribbean Football Union, Warner’s home base of support, to “support the African Diaspora,” the indictment says.
Warner accepted the offer and later indicated he’d voted for South Africa, according to the indictment.
Ultimately, prosecutors said, the South Africans struggled to make the payment from government funds, so FIFA paid the bill, using money that was intended to support South Africa’s World Cup.
Referring to the practice of paying bribes to obtain commercial rights at tournaments, Aaron Davidson, president of Traffic Sports USA, allegedly told one of the co-conspirators: “Is it illegal? It is illegal. Within the big picture of things, a company that has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.”
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Davidson, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was also charged Wednesday.