More reasons for US to probe Fifa deals

The joint investigation by the US and Switzerland into corruption at soccer’s global federation, Fifa, has opened up an inquiry of two American institutions: banking and media.
More reasons for US to probe Fifa deals

Since May, when both countries’ justice departments conducted their first wave of arrests of FIFA officials, many have questioned why the US would target a sport in which it has a comparatively weak reputation and public interest.

Some soccer officials from developing nations have even likened the investigators to “imperialists”.

However, the Justice Department’s focus from the beginning has been on American Fifa officials involved in the alleged bribery scheme, such as Chuck Blazer, the former president of the North American soccer federation, and on the American companies that are suspected of facilitating these transactions.

Earlier this month, another raid in Zurich, where Fifa is based, resulted in the arrests of 16 more people and the unsealing of a superseding indictment announcing the guilty pleas of eight defendants, including Alejandro Burzaco, the former chairman of the Argentine sports-marketing firm Torneos y Competencias.

Starting in 1999, T&T Sports Marketing Ltd, a joint venture between Torneos and the Brazilian sports media company Traffic, had acquired the exclusive broadcasting rights to three major Latin American club tournaments — Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana and Recopa Sudamericana — allegedly through a series of bribes from Torneos to various high-ranking officials of Conmebol, the South American federation.

Mr Burzaco continued the practice when he assumed a minority stake in Torneos in 2005.

The indictment states that T&T is part-owned by Torneos, its partners and “a group of investors that included an affiliate of a major broadcasting company headquartered in the US whose identity is known to the Grand Jury.”

Reuters reports that company is 21st Century Fox, which listed T&T as a subsidiary in last year’s SEC filing and currently owns 75% of its shares. (Reuters also reports that T&T “is registered in the Cayman Islands, does not have a listed telephone number and may not have any employees of its own.”)

In case this web of US media firms isn’t complicated enough, satellite-dish provider DirecTV owns 40% of Torneos and occupies four of its nine board seats.

Torneos also holds the rights to Copa America, and this year, DirecTV Latin America broadcast the tournament in Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

DirecTV has also reportedly secured the rights to broadcast next summer’s Copa America Centenario, celebrating the tournament’s 100th year.

Spokesmen for both Fox and DirecTV told the Wall Street Journal in June that they have no management control over Torneos or T&T.

The indictment also dedicates an entire subsection to the “Centrality of the US Financial System” in the Fifa scandal.

Over the past 30 years, the Justice Department says, the accused officials’ heavy reliance on American banks and financial institutions “was significant and sustained and was one of the central methods and means through which they promoted and concealed their schemes”.

This included billions of dollars Fifa wired from Swiss banks to US accounts, the bank accounts maintained by officials receiving bribes and kickbacks, and transactions involving foreign media companies, including Torneos and Traffic, using American banks to conduct their business.

The indictment adds, “the conspirators also relied on the broader strength and stability of the US financial system, including access to the private equity markets”.

In the weeks since the indictment was unsealed, US prosecutors have ramped up pressure against American and European banks believed to be involved in the bribery scheme.

The Financial Times reports that prosecutors are privately meeting with executives from JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, HSBC, Standard Chartered and UBS.

In June, Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber stated that “banks in Switzerland did fulfill their duties to file suspicious activity reports,” flagging as many as 53 instances of suspected money laundering.

UBS is reportedly co-operating with the investigation, and in November, Swiss authorities issued their first order to send information from Swiss bank accounts to US prosecutors.

On Thursday, the Swiss Justice Ministry froze accounts containing $50m to $100m (€46m to €92m) at the request of US investigators.

The scandal is a major lesson for financial institutions on the need for thorough internal review and reporting.

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