Clive McFarlane: FIFA indictments run counter to how the game is played

Clive McFarlane The Telegram & Gazette
Clive McFarlane

On Friday, Sepp Blatter was re-elected president of FIFA, the governing body for the beautiful game we here in America call soccer but is known as football pretty much everywhere else in the world.

Mr. Blatter’s re-election shocked some, coming just days after the U.S. Justice Department had announced a sweeping indictment against 14 soccer officials, including U.S. and South American sports marketing executives for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The Justice Department claimed the defendants had systematically “paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments.”

You must forgive me, but the Justice Department’s handling of this case - arresting seven defendants overnight in dawn raids overseas and holding a midday press conference to provide details of the case - reminds me of the creative ploys New England media often use to tell people it is snowing outside.

Sure, FIFA has long been dogged by allegations and Mr. Blatter has run the organization since 1998, but greasing the wheels to provide smoother sailing for business transactions is a tried, true and largely accepted practice the world over, and especially here in the United States.

I don’t want to pick on New York, but it provides a good example. In the past three years, no less than four of that state’s legislators, including the majority leader of the New York State Senate, have been found guilty of bribery.

Some $7 billion was spent by candidates, parties and outside groups on the 2012 national election. How much of that do you suppose was spent to ease the minds of congressmen and women who push policies favoring big business?

So, the only thing shocking about the FIFA indictment was the highly public fashion in which it was done. Very rarely do we see individuals being arrested or press conferences being called to publicize U.S. companies’ transgressions against the anti-corruption laws. And it is not from a lack of candidates.

According to a 2012 article by Stephen Gandel, a senior editor at, there were then “at least 81 public companies under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Department of Justice for running afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

Those companies, according to Mr. Gandel, included the Las Vegas Sands hotel, which was forced to pay the government $47.4 million to ward off criminal charges in a money laundering investigation, but whose alleged violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is still under investigation by the Justice Department.

The list of companies also includes Johnson & Johnson, which paid “$78 million to settle claims that it violated the UN’s Oil for Food program; and Halliburton, which paid over $550 million to settle claims that officials at a former division, including its head, had bribed officials in Nigeria while building a gas plant there.”

In a number of the cases, the Justice Department seems to prefer standing on the side, while allowing companies to clean up their own corrupt practices.

In 2012, for example, the New York Times began investigating what it later found to be “credible evidence that bribery played a persistent and significant role in Wal-Mart’s rapid growth in Mexico.” On learning of the investigation, Wal-Mart notified the Justice Department that it had become aware of potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by company officials and that it had begun an internal investigation.

Wal-Mart said it has spent nearly half a billion dollars cleaning up its act. The Justice Department investigation into the company’s alleged bribery practices is still pending.

Meanwhile, U.S. companies with the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pushing back at the Justice Department’s enforcement of the corrupt practices act. The chamber is recommending changes to the act that would make it less onerous on businesses, and it has joined a lawsuit filed by petroleum companies against Wall Street reform measures that require them to disclose payments they make to foreign governments.

Given all of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Blatter secured his re-election by telling FIFA members that the Justice Department’s high-profile indictment is merely the Americans trying to cut in on the group’s lucrative international football empire.