MANHATTAN/LONDON: The first Asian soccer official to be convicted in the FIFA corruption scandal, a member of a committee that oversaw ethics compliance, told a US judge he accepted about US$1 million in bribes, including US$100,000 from the former president of the Asian Football Confederation.
Guam Football Association president Richard Lai, a US citizen who’s also on the Asian confederation’s executive board, implicated the group’s ex-president, Mohamed Bin Hammam, and two other Asian soccer officials during his guilty plea Thursday, according to records in federal court in Brooklyn, New York.
Lai said rival factions within the sport’s governance bodies were trying to win his influence in the election for FIFA president and that he accepted illegal payments from both sides. Suspended Friday by the football organization’s ethics committee, Lai could face decades in prison after admitting to two counts of wire fraud.
While Lai didn’t name Hammam in court, he said he accepted US$100,000 “from the head of the Asian Football Conference at the time,” whom he said was later “banned for life from football.” Hammam, a Qatari, was president of the conference from 2002 until he resigned in 2011 and was subsequently banned for life.
Lai said the AFC president approached him in January 2011 with an offer to pay him as a consultant for a construction business while also soliciting his support in a run for the FIFA presidency. Lai said he never did any work for the money, which was wired from an account in Qatar.
Lai said he received more than US$850,000 in bribes from November 2009 to late 2014 to advance the interests of an opposing faction in Asian football and identify others with influence in FIFA who might be open to receiving bribes. He traced that relationship to a conference in Malaysia where he said the president of the Kuwait Football Association and an intermediary approached him seeking help to limit the influence of the AFC president.
In a 21-page document outlining the case and plea deal, descriptions of one of the co-conspirators matches Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahd Al Sabah, a sports powerbroker who sits on FIFA’s executive board. He’s also an influential member of the International Olympic Committee and backed that organization’s president towards election victory in 2013.
“Sheikh Ahmad is very surprised by such allegations and strongly denies any wrongdoing,” according to a statement sent by the Olympic Council of Asia, an umbrella body that he also leads. “He will vigorously defend his integrity and reputation and that of any organization that he represents in any relevant legal review.”
IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Ahmad had referred himself to FIFA’s ethics committee and “even though it is not related to any IOC matter, he has also informed the IOC chief ethics and compliance officer.”
Misuse of funds
Lai said he profited from working both sides, telling the judge he “ensured” that a “thorough” audit of Asian soccer would reveal a misuse of funds resulting in the AFC president’s ban from the sport.
“A high-ranking FIFA officer met with me and thanked me for my work on the audit,” Lai told the judge, according to the transcript. “That FIFA officer then rewarded me for those efforts by having me appointed to the FIFA audit and compliance committee.”
Lai said his efforts helped the opposing faction’s candidate eventually win the presidency of the Asian federation and the Kuwait official get elected to the FIFA executive committee.
“The defendant abused the trust placed in him as a soccer official in order to line his own pockets,” acting US Attorney Bridget Rohde in Brooklyn said in a statement. “The defendant’s breach of trust was particularly significant given his position as a member of the FIFA Audit and Compliance committee, which must play an important and independent role if corruption within FIFA is to be eliminated.”
Lai’s lawyer didn’t immediately respond Friday to an email seeking comment on the plea. Hammam couldn’t be immediately located for comment and the US attorney’s office was unable to identify his lawyer.
The sprawling US case against FIFA officials sent shockwaves through global soccer, unseating leaders including Sepp Blatter, who was replaced last year by Gianni Infantino. The scandal has affected FIFA’s bottom line as well as its image, as sponsors have held off buying slots for next year’s World Cup in Russia. This month, FIFA announced it had lost US$369 million in 2016 after spending US$130 million on lawyers and court costs in the past two years.
FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation announced Lai has been suspended and faces an internal probe.
“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football, which is also the top priority of the new leadership of FIFA,” Infantino said in a statement.