Officials Of Soccer's Governing Board Arrested On Corruption Charges
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The scene was a luxury hotel in Zurich. The alleged crimes - corruption and bribery. The accused are some of the world's top soccer officials. They had gathered at the hotel for a meeting. Little did they know, Swiss police were also there to arrest them. This happened early this morning. Now seven officials in FIFA, the wealthy organization that governs soccer, are facing extradition to the United States. This news first broke in The New York Times, and one of the reporters on the story, Matt Apuzzo, is here in the studio with me. Matt, good morning to you.
MATT APUZZO: Great to be here.
GREENE: So you had several colleagues working on this story with you. They were actually in this hotel in Zurich, and I want to start with you just telling me about the dramatic scene there.
APUZZO: Two of my colleagues, Sam Borden and Mike Schmidt, are - were in the lobby of this luxury hotel and about 16 plainclothes Swiss police officers just walk in very casually, go right up to the registration desk, ask for a bunch of room keys for FIFA officials. And then very - you know, very casually but deliberatively fan out through the hotel, head right upstairs to where the hotel rooms are and began making arrests. It was all very - it was all very casual. It was all very polite. People were escorted from the building. They were allowed to bring their luggage. People weren't in handcuffs. One of my colleagues remarked that it looked like people were leaving with a group of friends. It was all - it was all very friendly.
GREENE: Very casual except for very serious charges they're facing.
GREENE: And I want to get to them because I think a lot of people think about FIFA and when they hear that they think World Cup. And there has been news about the next few World Cups in Russia and Qatar and how there could be just a lot of money, a lot of corruption. Is that what this is about?
APUZZO: Right, well, you know, we've all thought that those were going to be the centerpiece of this investigation. But it turns out the Justice Department is bringing a much broader case, one that alleges bribery and kickbacks - $150 million of bribes and kickbacks - over 20 or more years, basically saying corruption is endemic in the world's most powerful sports organization.
GREENE: So much broader - we're not actually talking specifically about these next few World Cups. This investigation is not necessarily dealing with that.
APUZZO: Yeah, the Justice Department's investigation is not, but now we're getting word that the Swiss have an investigation. They've opened their own investigation into the selection of host sites for the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. So now it looks like even more potential trouble for FISA and that those potentially corrupt deals may also end up causing problems for the organization.
GREENE: So this really has scoped this whole investigation. Why is the U.S. so involved? I mean, soccer is the world's most popular sport, not all that popular in the United States, though people are trying to change that. But why are U.S. authorities really involved, too?
APUZZO: It may not be the most popular sport in the United States, but it's a lot of money. And when you've got a lot of money moving through secretive organizations, I think there's obviously potential for corruption. And when these organizations use American banks and Americans sort of financial networks to do illicit acts, the Justice Department gets jurisdiction. And, you know, FIFA has been beset by allegations of corruptions for years and nothing has really happened with it. And so I think what you're seeing is the United States's Justice Department kind of stepping in and filling that void.
GREENE: And we should say there's a new sheriff in town in the United States. Loretta Lynch is the new attorney general. Could this be her trying to, you now, make some headlines and kind of show that she's serious about things like this?
APUZZO: Well, she's definitely serious about it. One of the interesting things here is that Loretta Lynch is, you know, she's the new attorney general. She's been on the job here in Washington for about a month, but her prior job, she was the United States attorney in Brooklyn, which is where this investigation was based. So she has been running this investigation in her last job, and now she's seeing it over the goal line.
GREENE: Well - and, Matt, just thinking about FIFA and the future of this organization as it goes forward - I mean, Sepp Blatter leads the organization. He has not been arrested or charged here as far as we know. He's actually up for re-election for his role. I mean, is all this going to affect his fate?
APUZZO: So Sepp Blatter is the most powerful man in sports, and he is - he is somebody who has a lot of experience weathering corruption scandals. So he hasn't been charged, and we don't know what his fate will be. But we do know that this is certainly the biggest threat to his authority during his tenure. I mean, two of his vice presidents are now charged and the Justice Department is calling basically the entire operation corrupt. So it'll be interesting to see what happens as Blatter faces re-election and what the future holds for him because, you know, we're told the investigation is ongoing.
GREENE: And I guess all of this - just such a stark reminder that, you know, all the fun and sort of good feelings and patriotism and the highs and the lows of watching sports and watching soccer. I mean, in the end, this is a business and a huge business with a whole lot of money.
APUZZO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, FIFA has, you know, more than a billion dollars in cash reserves alone. They're bringing in, you know, multiple billion dollars a year in revenue. And if you want to be a part of that, if you're a company, if you're an investor, and you want to be a part of that, you want a piece of that, you have to deal with Sepp Blatter and the FIFA executive committee and that's where the Justice Department says the heart of the problem remains.
GREENE: Matt, thanks a lot for coming in.
APUZZO: Any time.
GREENE: That's Matt Apuzzo from The New York Times. He was part of a reporting team that broke the news of arrests of some top officials in FIFA. That's the large international governing body of soccer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.