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  • Sport Law Expert: FIFA Indictment "A Wake-Up Call" -- On the Record


    (ATR) Law firm president Michael Buckner tells Around the Rings the FIFA officials indicted on racketeering charges could serve jail sentences as long as 20 years if they are convicted.

    Michael Buckner, president of Buckner Sports Law firm (Buckner)
    Nine FIFA officials and five marketing companies are under investigation for their involvement in bribery and corruption schemes to fix the World Cup host selection vote and secure lucrative broadcasting and marketing deals.

    Many named in the indictment were taken into custody in Switzerland at the FIFA congress and are now waiting extradition to the United States for their trial to be heard.

    Buckner spoke with Around the Rings editor Ed Hula to sort out the complicated legal process that will result from this indictment.

    Michael Buckner is president of Buckner, described as a boutique sport law practice and consultancy based in Sunrise, Florida,

    Part two of this interview will be published Friday afternoon.

    This interview has been edited for context and clarity.

    Around the Rings: Today it’s kinda quiet, but it’s still…There’s a lot going on. A lot still has to cross under the bridge, or float under the bridge between now and whenever this ends.

    Michael Buckner: Well I think this, because of this, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and news is going to start tricking out and there’s going to be more and more stories coming out, so you guys are going to be taking advantage of this.

    ATR: Well is there any business in it for you guys, for your firm?

    MB: Well, you know, you know that’s the question because of course whenever things like that come out we think about the business angle. I think potentially for firms like us and other firms in this country and over in Europe I think international sports federations are going to be uh, probably quicker to conduct external investigations if they feel that there’s possible criminal, fraudulent activity, and actually give those investigators full discretion. Because, you know, FIFA had a former federal agent do an investigation and I don’t think they were, as I’m sure we’ll find out, probably, wasn’t probably as forthcoming as they probably should be. And what he did submit with his report they didn’t release the report.

    So I think you’re probably going to find a change because I think you’re going to find other officials and members of this governing bodies and these international sports federations understand that the U.S. has a long reach now. And that they’re now going to have to really be beholden to other national governments, not just the United States, but Switzerland and France and the other countries in which they’re going to be based out of.

    ATR: Yeah, pay attention to the laws there.

    MB: That’s right. You know, and, we were talking about it internally here, you know that somebody in FIFA is, is not a government entity, it’s really a unique entity because, before a few weeks ago, it was beholden to nobody. And I think that you can put that description, a label on a lot of international sports federations and that’s how they’ve been acting or the mentality and I think this is a wake-up call and that they’re going to have to pay attention to the laws in their domestic jurisdictions as well as any jurisdiction in which they’re doing business in. Or their affiliates or organizations that report to them.

    FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland (Getty Images)
    ATR: Why would the United States decide to get involved in a case like this? It seems very complicated, very unwieldy, and not something the U.S. is ordinarily interested in—Soccer, football.

    MB: Right. I think you have to look back at the general federal laws that the Department of Justice is alleging that the individuals violated. And those are the wiretapping, tax evasion, racketeering laws. And the fact that they allegedly violated those federal statutes by one, using U.S. financial institutions, and agreeing to conduct those alleged illicit activities on U.S. soil. And, using in part entities that are based physically in the United States.

    So, the U.S., I believe following from what I’ve seen in the indictment and from what I’ve reviewed, you know, it is in the best interests of the United States to ensure that its financial institutions and its financial network is not being used for ill-gotten Games, and is not being used to commit any type of illicit activities. Because the United States financial network and its institutions do not just serve parties and individuals and companies and organizations in this country, but the American financial scheme is of course, well, other countries rely heavily on the U.S. and its financial structure. So, it is a way in part to ensure that the U.S. banking and financial structure is above board and is not susceptible to any type of illicit activities.

    ATR: And not necessarily, as some people have raised, that it’s a sign of a grudge from the United States that we were being passed over from being selected for the World Cup, that it’s a way for the U.S. to get back at somebody for being snubbed for the World Cup, it’s more than that. It’s a bigger thing.

    MB: Yes. I mean, there have been, I mean again, everyone alleged, of course, knows that United States soccer or football is not the most popular sport in this country. It is becoming more and more popular every year, but it’s not American football, basketball, baseball, or even hockey, and there have been on numerous occasions in the last 10, 15, 20 years in which the U.S. has put in a bid to host various international competitions ranging from the Olympics to other organizations and the United States or proposed host cities did not get those bids. So, we didn’t go out, the United States government did not go out and try to pursue allegations against the organization that was conducting the bidding operation.

    This is different. This is a situation which I don’t think based upon what I’ve read the U.S. Government has I believe a solid basis for pursuing the indictments and this is a situation in which they learned of information apparently, that person that had connections inside FIFA, and they believed that regardless of the fact that they did not get the 2022 World Cup that most importantly there was a law, or laws that are broken allegedly by these individuals. And the fact up until of course, there’s been recent stories indicating that the FBI probe has now expanded to the bids for 2018 and 2022, the indictments are, that have been released, do not relate to those bidding operations. So I think that that’s a distinction at this point that needs to be made that the documents do not relate to those 2018 2022.

    ATR: How big of a job is it going to be for this case to be prosecuted? It’s already been going on for several years now, many years, and now you’ve got dozen plus defendants in foreign countries and all that.

    MB: I think this is the, the US Government has a long history of involving itself in complex operations and so I don’t think this is going to be any different than what the U.S. Government has done it the past, whether it be 15 other countries in South America with criminal operations, building up cases and investigating, dealing with for example cartels down in South America or in the Middle East now with the current issues with various Islamic terrorist organizations. So, the U.S. has a history and vast experience with a lot of the federal agencies, some of them involved in this organization, in conducting cross-border investigations and prosecutions. Now, with that being said, it’s still going to be a very large and complex operation and investigation.

    But the U.S. has vast resources, I mean if you look at the, I think I read in the last few weeks the conviction rate, once the U.S. gets parties in Court the conviction rate is over 90%. So that’s why you see a lot of criminal defendants in Federal Court settle these and go ahead and agree to plea deals because they realize the U.S. government has so many resources that the chances of victory in Federal Court are going to be minimal because the Feds and the federal prosecutors have - Think of the court. They’re going to do their homework, they’re going to have their eyes peeled, their T’s crossed. And this indictment is just the first step in a long process that’s going to take place and that the indictment is not the end of the evidence collection.

    The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice is going to be continuing its investigation, going to be collecting its information not only through its own resources but through Swiss authorities and other governments that it’s currently working with. As well as, any of those individuals that are currently indicted and going to be extradited to the U.S., they can also provide information if they want to enter into a plea deal and cooperate with Federal Authorities in order to get a reduced sentence. So there’s going to be even more information. They’re going to find out things that they didn’t know at the outset. They’re going to find out more information as this case progresses. So this is going to be complex, there’s going to be a lot of moving parts but the U.S. has a lot of experience in managing those moving parts.
    (Qatar 2022)

    ATR: To get people to trial or to the plea bargain stage you gotta get them here to the United States, the suspects, what is going to be involved, what do you expect from the extradition process with the Swiss?

    MB: Well, you know, I think that, and again, I don’t know any of these parties involved, I think this is a concerted plan to wait until FIFA had their World Congress in Switzerland, because the Swiss and the U.S. have a very favorable extradition treaty and under this treaty it’s going to be a straightforward process. The U.S. has about a 40-day time period in order to formally file a formal extradition request with the Swiss government and the Swiss Federal Office of Justice will review that request, they will make a recommendation on that request and as long as the alleged criminal acts could be prosecuted or would be illicit under Swiss law and do not involve currency violations then the Swiss government will grant that extradition request.

    Now of course the persons that are under our extradition request can appeal that initial Swiss decision and that can go up through the Swiss Courts, all the way up through the highest Court in Switzerland. And at the end of the day this process should only take a few months, even with all the multiple appeals that will be applicable or available to those individuals but at the end of the day unless there’s some really compelling argument or issue that the defendants can bring up to Swiss authorities the U.S. is going to get those individuals extradited to the U.S. in a few months.

    ATR: Would this be the sort of thing where all these cases be considered en banc or would they be one by one individually as far as the extradition goes?

    MB: I think they’re going to be looking at it from a case by case basis and again they may treat it as the entire group of defendants but, or they may just do it individually. I think especially when you have situations which persons are going to be alleging specific reasons why they should not be extradited, then that’s when it’s going to be on a case by case basis.

    ATR: Would there perhaps be any discussions now before they’re extradited about plea bargains, about taking a deal? Could that happen?

    MB: Yeah, that could happen, they could be reaching out to federal authorities now saying, okay, if we do not oppose extradition, you know, we’ll come over to do a plea, and those conversations can actually occur. And right now, I assume from how the indictment’s been structured and the statements from the federal authorities during the press conference it appears they’re treating this FIFA investigation and subsequent case as if they were an organized crime operation.

    And so a lot of times with organized crime, criminal investigations, they will indict or arrest middle persons or persons that are around or associated or close to the heads of these organizations and waiting for persons to flip, to turn in state’s evidence so that they can continue building cases for the top-echelon leaders. And it appears that that’s what they may be doing in this instance with a lot of vice presidents and persons on the Executive Board and assistants in sports management companies that are associated with doing business with FIFA in order to collect, you know, they have enough information on those individuals but they need to have in order to go after the top of these organizations they need to have clear evidence, direct evidence and so the way you do that is by getting persons that are on the inside that know about that shouldn’t know about other illicit activities and hopefully that you get them to flip, to give you really great information and know where to get to get this information.

    So I think that might be in place, it’s not already that attorneys for those defendants have been reaching out to Federal Authorities or they could be taking some other route, the opposite route: Hey, I’m going to be fighting this, I’m going to go all out, I’m not going to do any type of negotiations, because I’m going to fight this extradition request. The danger in any exit strategy if you talk to any experienced criminal defense attorney is when you have a situation where you have multiple persons involved in alleged illicit criminal operations, whoever goes first, whoever turns states evidence first, generally speaking is going to get the better deal. And especially if they’re able to provide a wealth of information that can actually tie in the other defendants or other persons that have not been indicted yet.

    ATR: Where would the trials take place if there were trials?

    Aaron Davidson of Traffic sports plead not guilty to the U.S. indictment. (Getty Images)
    MB: Right, the indictment was filed in the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, so that would be where the trials will be held.

    ATR: And some people might say, well, how did it end up in the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn? How would a case get pigeonholed there?

    MB: Well, it could be certain factors. Normally it would be they’d place it in a federal district in which there’s nexus to the alleged criminal activities, in this instance you have a lot of financial transactions with New York these financial institutions and so that would be the most logical place to have it, either in Manhattan, the Eastern District of Manhattan Division or in Brooklyn.

    ATR: The testimony of Chuck Blazer indicates that he brought checks into the United States through JFK so that would…

    MB: That’d be Brooklyn. He brought gifts. Then of course, it could’ve also been in Manhattan because some of the financial institutions or banks they were using were based in Manhattan then it could’ve been filed there too. So it’s just a strategy and again it all depends upon, oftentimes when we file lawsuits we will look to, I mean there are multiple places where we could possibly file a lawsuit, we will look to see what the best forum for us strategically.

    ATR: Any extraordinary challenges for the prosecution? I mean, always you’ve got big challenges when you’re trying to win a case. But what would be anything particularly noticeable that would be hard to prove or hard for them to prosecute?

    MB: I think that’s why they executed those arrests on the same day, at the same time they were here in Miami at the CONCACAF offices as well as at the Congress over in Switzerland and I think whenever you deal with these complex, racketeering, wire fraud, tax evasion cases it is collecting authenticated evidence of the illicit activity. And we do have a lot of financial transactions, tying that into persons, to decision makers that you’re trying to prosecute can be difficult. Especially if you’re using shell corporations, off-shore entities, it’s going through multiple layers and you’re using lots of different ways to conceal your activities, then, and you’re going after, if you’re trying to go after the top of any organization, normally what they will do is they will create multiple different layers underneath them so that they could be insulated.

    And so it appears from the indictment the government feels they have enough information to go after the persons that was the subject to the original arrest, but it may be that they’re trying to go after addition persons within FIFA, and so right now that’s probably what they’re doing now is collecting additional information, especially from the evidence that was seized during the arrest, as well as the information from FIFA headquarters. It is trying to put those pieces together. When we do investigations, we may have information, oral testimony, from persons linking others to an illicit act but it’s much much stronger to find documents, electronic records, financial records, things which are tangible to which you could show a jury that, you know linking one of the defendants to this actual ledger, and tying it into oral testimony.

    That’s much much stronger, because if I was the defense attorney and someone is, a witness is saying my client allegedly did certain illicit acts, then I would question that person’s motives for doing this especially if they turn state’s evidence and told the Feds a lot of information in return for a reduced sentence. Well they have a motive to be favorable to the prosecution. And so the ways defense attorneys are really skillful is they’re able to use that to their advantage. So the Feds are going to be looking for evidence that no matter what type of jury that they have that they will be able to clearly link the defendants and possible future defendants to criminal actions using the most available and pertinent information that they can seize.

    ATR: And it’s leverage for plea bargaining and all that, that they feel like everybody faces prison terms, right?

    MB: Right.

    ATR: That they’ll go to prison if they’re found guilty, likely.

    MB: Correct. The racketeering charges alone cover up to about 20 years of prison and a financial penalty, so yes, they’re very significant, they’re facing some serious jail time if they’re extradited and convicted.

    ATR: And individuals who are extradited will remain in custody once they get brought back to the United States, they’ll be held. Any chance that they could get bail?

    MB: They can actually request it. But it’ll be interesting to see whether the federal judge will actually grant that.

    ATR: Because there would be substantial flight risk I would imagine.

    MB: Yes. Of course they would have their passports, things like that, but then would be a very serious series of crimes and more than likely the chance would be that they would not get bail.

    Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

    Interview by Ed Hula and transcription by Kyle Rinaudo

    For general comments or questions, click here.

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