By Paul Gardner
Sunday's meeting of the FIFA Ethics Committee will, evidently, be a unique one. Because for the first time that I'm aware of, it will be presented with solid proof of corruption. Or so we are told.
The Ethics Committee has 13 members and is allegedly independent -- I say allegedly, because I feel justified in saying that the pronouncements of internal investigative bodies should always be viewed circumspectly.
Appearing before the Ethics Committee will be Trinidadian Jack Warner, president of Concacaf, and Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar, president of the Asian Football Confederation (and the challenger to incumbent Sepp Blatter in next month’s FIFA presidential election). Both are members of FIFA’s top body, the Executive Committee. They have been accused of corruption in a document lodged with FIFA by Concacaf’s American general secretary Chuck Blazer.
Both Bin Hammam and Warner have denied the charges. Bin Hammam says Blatter had been made aware of the actions that resulted in the charges, and raised no objections. As a result, Blatter has now been summoned to appear before the Ethics Committee, and he too denies any wrongdoing.
The charges, as I understand them, are as follows:
The setting: Port of Spain, Trinidad, during a May 10-11 meeting of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU). The CFU is a subsidiary Concacaf grouping of 30 of its island members, including Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago, but made up mostly of smaller islands such as Grenada, Aruba, St. Lucia, Dominica, etc., even including Bermuda. Of these, 25 are full FIFA members and thus have a vote in the upcoming FIFA Presidential meeting. Bin Hammam is present, along with Jack Warner.
The accusation: That, during the meeting, money was offered by Bin Hammam to the CFU representatives. The rumors say it was $40,000 in cash to each member, and that Warner was involved in the distribution of the money. This is something of a gray area -- financial assistance, or promises thereof, to aid the development of the sport are not considered bribes ... unless they are made as a trade-off for votes. But much clearer, open to no doubt whatever, is what the FIFA Code of Ethics says about cash: “accepting gifts of cash in any amount or form is prohibited.”
That rules out accepting cash -- but how about offering cash?
The Code has this to say about offering gifts: they must be “in accordance with the average relative value of local cultural customs” -- it is inconceivable that $40,000 would fit into that category -- and a warning that no “dishonest advantage” must be gained by the giver -- vague enough to include vote-buying.
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My first response to the news was shock and disbelief, leading to ...
Speculation No. 1: Given the impossibility that Blazer and Warner have come to blows, then they are working together on behalf of/at the request of Blatter to derail Bin Hammam. But does Blatter need to do that? He appears a certain winner of the election anyway. And it involves Blatter in lying to deny all responsibility. Anyway, the rumors grow that Warner was trapped handing out money.
So there followed, as statements were made and rumors flew ...
Speculation No. 2: Blazer could have known nothing about this. Blatter must have set it up, a double strike, ridding himself of presidential opponent Bin Hammam and longtime embarrassment Jack Warner in one fell swoop. Blazer was left out because the fewer people who knew what was going on, the better. Then once Bin Hammam and Warner had been trapped and the report prepared, it was shown to Blazer who was given the choice, no choice really, of backing or opposing Blatter’s action. More lying involved -- for the FIFA pronouncements all speak of Blazer as the man who blew the whistle. This is deep conspiracy -- but too much for my taste, it raises too many questions: How would Blazer not know what was going on under his nose? How and with whom would Blatter set up such a delicate sting operation? Did Blatter, then, have advance knowledge that bribery attempts were going to happen?
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After 36 hours of constantly shifting my position in response to new revelations, this where I am now . . .
Current Speculation: I have finally and with great difficulty acknowledged that the Blazer-Warner break is for real ... this allows a more rational approach. Blazer is aware that Warner is prepared to help Bin Hammam’s presidential bid, or at least that Warner wants to give Bin Hammam the chance to meet with all the Concacaf delegates. The obvious time is during the Concacaf congress in Miami, May 1-3.
That doesn’t work out because -- and I’m already having a big problem with this ... Bin Hammam cannot get a visa to enter the USA? That seems odd, to put it mildly.
So a subsequent meeting is arranged in Trinidad on May 10-11 for Bin Hammam to meet up with -- not the entire Concacaf membership, but the CFU guys. As Blazer is not at the meeting, it seems safe to assume he wasn’t invited. Possibly he was kept in the dark about it -- but not for long, as he’s soon informed -- presumably from certain at least puzzled, or quite possibly horrified, CFU members who were at the meeting, that cash is being handed out to CFU members -- specifically $40,000 per nation. And evidently there are takers.
A flat-out contravention of the FIFA Ethics Code -- which Blazer feels obliged to report to FIFA. Indeed the Ethics Code commands that he report it. He does so. With the result that the American lawyer John Collins is called in to collect evidence, take sworn statements, and prepare a legal document. This takes about a week and is presented to FIFA by Blazer (presumably with a heavy heart -- he has, after all, had a close 30-year working relationship with Warner). And all hell breaks loose.
The evidence that Blazer has submitted surely has to be pretty solid for him to take this step. One thinks first of the money. OK, $40,000 per delegate is not a huge amount -- but there were 25 delegates, meaning a total of $1 million. Cash. How did that amount of cash turn up in Port of Spain?
At which point, one has to pause and wonder just how all this could happen. Given the current atmosphere surrounding FIFA, which is one of extreme sensitivity on the whole subject of bribery and corruption -- surely top FIFA officials like Warner and Bin Hammam would be ultra-careful in money matters?
Unless -- and this is a thought that has occurred to me before now -- Warner has become so inured to accusations of wrong-doing, so accustomed to brushing them aside, that he now lives inside a cocoon of illusory invulnerability. Could be, I suppose.
The Ethics Committee has already had to reconstitute itself because of the sensitivities involved. Regular chairman Claudio Sulser has recused himself because he is Swiss, the same nationality as Blatter -- which might suggest bias. For the same reason, Burton Haimes has withdrawn from the hearings -- he, like the whistle blower Blazer, is an American.
We should know a lot more about these murky happenings after the Committee’s Sunday meeting -- assuming that the famous FIFA transparency is working well.