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Kickbacks and penalties

The week in corruption, 3 September 2021

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter at a press conference in Moscow, 2007

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter at a press conference in Moscow, 2007. Image: kojoku / Shutterstock

Transparency Int'l

When times are tough – and there’s no denying they have been of late – sports can offer a welcome respite from the news cycle. But some developments in the world of sports warrant a pause in their own right.

The US Department of Justice recently announced that it will return the funds seized as part of their long-running investigation into the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal – to FIFA itself.

Considering that FIFA has largely been perceived as a perpetrator, this news may come as a surprise to many. Several years ago, headlines focusing on top FIFA officials who took bribes and kickbacks in exchange for lucrative media and marketing rights shook sports fans around the world.

But corruption is a two-way street. In this scheme, the bribe-takers were FIFA officials who simultaneously held – at that time or previously – positions in regional or national football organisations. The bribe-payers were companies and business executives from the US, South America and elsewhere.

While probes are still ongoing in several countries, the US investigations alone have resulted in the indictment of more than 50 individuals and entities. Among them is Julius Baer – a Swiss bank whose dodgy dealings we’ve scrutinised before.

As the financial sector’s gatekeepers, banks have the important task of detecting illicit funds and preventing them from entering financial markets. That’s why we have been calling on national supervisory authorities everywhere to ramp up their efforts. They need to be quick to impose proportional and effective sanctions on banks, their employees and senior managers who breach anti-money laundering obligations.

In the case of FIFA, we now know that Julius Baer helped launder over US$36 million in bribes. These and other funds to be forfeited by the US authorities amount to a whopping US$201 million. FIFA has set up a foundation to disburse these funds into community projects, saying that the process will be subject to strict monitoring.

The 2015 corruption scandal gave FIFA an impetus to finally overhaul its systems, strengthen its compliance and improve internal policies. But the footballing world has yet to overcome many structural shortcomings, especially when it comes to ensuring transparency and accountability at the national level.

Though important steps have been made, there is still work to do. The US Department of Justice decision should not be interpreted as FIFA’s full acquittal. The FIFA President and the Council members must lead from the top. If they are to regain credibility and set an example for FIFA members, their actions must be above reproach.
Sylvia Schenk Transparency International Germany

The decision to recognise FIFA and other football federations as victims of corruption also sets an important precedent. In large-scale cross-border cases such as the Airbus foreign bribery scandal, confiscated proceeds often wind up in the state treasuries of the countries exporting corruption, while individuals and groups harmed by these schemes rarely receive compensation. This decision can help us push for the introduction of victims’ compensation as standard practice in foreign bribery and money laundering cases.

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