Friday, May 29, 2015

On the Nature of Entrenched Power: FIFA’s President Ensconced in Corruption

In May 2015, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was “shocking FIFA like an earthquake,” according to the European newspaper, Das Bild.[1] She was leading “an American-led takedown of corruption in FIFA,” the Federation Internationale de Football Association, which oversees the sport of football, or soccer as it is known in the U.S., globally.[2] With great power comes resounding responsibility, even if the sound is ignored. When the head of an organization goes after the corruption-fighters rather than admitting to error at the very least in having presided over allegedly corrupt officials near the top—and in fact repeatedly dismisses calls to resign and not stand for re-election (but then is implicated and resigns just days after he was astonishingly reelected!)—the question becomes one of the intractability of squalid power, as if it were defying gravity—at least that of the ethical variety. 
A U.S. Justice Department investigation made public on May 27, 2015 “accused 14 international soccer officials or sports marketing executives of bribery, racketeering, fraud and money-laundering over two decades in connection with marketing rights worth hundreds of millions of dollars awarded for tournaments in North and South America.”[3] The Justice Department could document more than $150 million in bribes.[4] Seven officials, including two FIFA vice presidents and members of its finance committee were arrested in Zurich. Jeffrey Webb, president of the North and Central American and Caribbean regional body known as CONCACAF, was among those arrested. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, was not implicated in the indictment. In addition, Swiss officials were investigating the FIFA votes that assigned World Cup tournament to Russia in 2018 and to Qatar in 2022. “Both decisions were marred by allegations of wrongdoing,” according to Politico.[5]

FIFA's Sepp Blatter, as if holding in all the bad news.

In making the investigation and arrests public, Lynch castigated the allegedly corrupt FIFA officials. “They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest and to protect the integrity of the game. Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves.”[6] The bribe-taking began in 1991 and never let up, she added. “They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament,” she said. “These individuals through these organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide — one of the most popular sports around the globe.”[7] The putrid odor of corruption was ensconced in the very fabric of FIFA’s governance.

By 2011, the organization overseeing the sport worldwide “repeatedly faced charges of corruption while operating with a lack of transparency and little oversight.”[8] FIFA’s ethics committee seemed only to put up a few tokens to project the veneer of accountability. Specifically, Mohamed bin Hammam and another FIFA official, Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago, were suspended on May 29, 2011 by a FIFA ethics committee. Bin Hammam was accused “of offering cash payments of $40,000 apiece to about two dozen officials from Caribbean nations, with the understanding that they would vote for Bin Hammam over [the then-current president, Sepp] Blatter.”[9] Blatter, too, was accused of corruption, but he miraculously managed to evade the net of the association’s ethics committee. In fact, because bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy for the presidency, Blatter was able to run unopposed for a fourth term.

At a news conference on May 30, 2015 in Zurich, Blatter promised “zero tolerance” of illicit behavior in the future. However, “he remained defiant, remarking that “FIFA was experiencing ‘difficulties’ but not a crisis.”[10] He “dismissed calls” by people including Hugh Robertson, a sports minister in the E.U., that the election should be postponed because the results lacked credibility. The day before, Blatter had asserted, “I am the president of FIFA; you cannot question me.”[11] This statement speaks volumes; it reminds me of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s statement, “If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”[12]

Again in May 2015, the day before FIFA’s annual Congress in Switzerland, Blatter refused to heed calls for his resignation in the wake of a scandal; in fact, he hoped he would be re-elected the next day! "We have the opportunity to begin on what will be a long and difficult road to rebuilding trust,” he said before he was re-elected. “We have lost their trust, at least a part of it, and we must now earn it back."[13] The “we” includes “I.” Just after his re-election to a fifth term, he explicitly stated that he would “bring back FIFA.”[14] “I will give this FIFA to my successor in a very, very strong, strong position . . . and a good FIFA,” he insisted.[15] Can a good FIFA come from a bad person, however, ethically speaking?
That the man in charge when the trust was lost would imply that he should be included—remaining at the helm no less—defies the nature of trust and smells of deceit, as if he had been oblivious to the widespread bribery. Ignoring the fact that two FIFA vice presidents and members of its finance committee had been arrested just a day earlier, he defiantly retorted, “We cannot watch everyone all the time. We have 1.6 billion people directly or indirectly touched by our game.”[16] Besides looking disingenuous, his statement seeks to belittle the corruption critics by implying that their criticism is ridiculous.
No critic was saying that FIFA’s president should have been keeping an eye on 1.6 billion people; rather the accusations were directed in large part at his inner circle. FIFA places a large amount of discretion in a comparatively small number of individuals. “Unlike the International Olympic Committee, whose 100-plus delegates vote on important matters like the awarding of the Winter and Summer Games, FIFA’s power is concentrated in a 24-member executive committee.”[17] This power-structure alone is conducive to bribery because relatively few people need be bought off.
To dissimulate and insult reasonable anti-corruption efforts undermines Blatter’s claim he is the man to head efforts at FIFA to rebuild the flattened trust. The U.S., and the Obama administration more particular, accepted some risk in leading the effort to clean up the corruption in FIFA.  “This Department of Justice is determined to end these practices, to root out corruption and to bring wrongdoers to justice,” Lynch said in announcing the arrests on May 27, 2015.[18] Such determination is particularly laudable when it is directed to the rich and powerful, since they have the wherewithal to fight back—even going on offense!
In the case of FIFA, its executive committee had the power at the time to “decertify any country’s soccer federation if it perceives interference from a national government. Critics [said] this leaves politicians reluctant to intervene, fearful of facing public wrath if a country’s soccer team is suddenly declared ineligible to compete.”[19] That Europe joined America in calling for Blatter to resign rather than put himself up for re-election is therefore extremely important, for FIFA could hardly expunge both the E.U. and U.S.
Therefore, Blatter went with contorting—even subtly ridiculing—an anti-corruption effort that involved considerable risk. He even hinted that the true objective behind the investigation was to keep the World Cup from being played in Russia and Qatar. “If two other countries had emerged from the envelope I don’t think we would have these problems today,” he told the members of FIFA’s Congress.[20] In actuality, the investigation came out of a income-tax-evasion investigation in 2011 of Chuck Blazer, who was involved in international football/soccer, and a separate investigation of a Russian organized-crime case in late 2010.[21] “I don’t think there was ever a decision or a declaration that we would go after soccer,” said Richard Weber, the chief of the I.R.S. unit in charge of criminal investigations. “We were going after corruption,” he added.[22] Blatter was likely getting his talking point from Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, who had much incentive to see the investigation discredited so nothing would stop Russia from hosting an upcoming World Cup that was part of the bribery investigation.
Blatter’s choices in how he would react publicly to the arrests were telling as to the man’s unethical character. I submit he was thus likely susceptible to, or at least likely an enabler of the widespread bribery that had been going on under his watch. That he appealed “to unity and team spirit so we can move forward together” as he addressed FIFA’s Congress on the day of the vote—just two days after the arrests—is to promise, in effect, even more decay rather than a real clean-up.[23] Even though he would resign less than a week after his reelection, that he was so defiant for so long, even as his secretary general became publicly linked to a $10 million deposit linked to bribery, reflects very badly on just how entrenched power can be at the top of our societal institutions. That is to say, the institutional devices we rely on to remove powerful, corrupt people from their lofty perches in organizations—and even governments—must be woefully inadequate.

[1] Josh Gerstein, “For Loretta Lynch, A Stunning Debut on the World Stage,” Politico, May 28, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Matt Apuzzo, “U.S. Tax Investigation Snowballed to Stun the Soccer World,” The New York Times, May 29, 2015.
[5] Gerstein, “Loretta Lynch.”
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Jeré Longman, “Accusations Are Replaced by Anger at FIFA,” The New York Times, May 30, 2011.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Longman, “Accusations.”
[11] Ibid.
[12] The Frost-Nixon Interviews.
[13] Associated Press, “Sepp Blatter.”
[14] Lucy McCalmont, “Sepp Blatter Re-Elected as FIFA President for Fifth Term,” The Huffington Post, May 29, 2015.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Mike Collett and Brian Homewood, “Sepp Blatter Is Up for Re-election on Friday and Probably Going to Win,” The Huffington Post, May 29, 2015.
[17] Longman, ‘Accusations.”
[18] Gernstein, “Loretta Lynch.”
[19] Longman, “Accusations.”
[20] Mike Collett and Brian Homewood, “Sepp Blatter.”
[21] Apuzzo, “U.S. Tax Investigation.”
[22] Ibid.
[23] Mike Collett and Brian Homewood, “Sepp Blatter.”