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  • Sport Law Expert: "Someone Told Blatter to Step Down" -- On the Record


    (ATR) Legal expert Michael Buckner spoke with Around the Rings editor Ed Hula about what's next for the top FIFA officials who were not indicted by the United States, including embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

    Michael Buckner is president of the Buckner Sports Law Firm, described as a boutique sport law practice and consultancy based in Sunrise, Florida.

    Michael Buckner, Buckner Sports Law firm president (Buckner)
    This is part two of the interview with Buckner. Click here for part one.

    This interview has been edited for context and clarity.

    Around the Rings: In the investigation, the feds may be going after other people, looking higher up in the chain. There aren’t many people above vice presidents of FIFA. We’re talking about getting to the president of FIFA. We’re talking about getting to the secretary general of FIFA. Could these individuals be facing charges even though they’re not charged right now?

    Michael Buckner: Yes, they’ve seen charges from the U.S. government and from the Swiss government which has now, of course, launched its own investigation. The unique thing about Blatter is that he’s a Swiss citizen. And so the chances for him to be extradited are going to be lessened because of his Swiss nationality, because of Swiss law. Versus those individuals that were not Swiss nationals, who were citizens of other foreign jurisdictions who were on Swiss territory.

    He’s probably surrounding himself with very sophisticated U.S.- and European-based lawyers, advising him as to what’s the best course of action, because from this point of view, in terms of which country he traveled to, whether he should be traveling at all, because again, if the U.S. government finds in the aftermath of this indictment and all the documents that’s it’s collected, information that directly links Blatter to any of these illicit activities or knew, or illicit activities that we didn’t even know about and he’s traveling to foreign jurisdiction in which the U.S. has a really good extradition treaty, then he could be subject to the same extradition requests of the vice presidents and the other individuals swept up in the series of arrests.

    ATR: If you were one of Sepp Blatter’s attorneys, you might be advising him today, right now, not to travel outside of Switzerland.

    FIFA president Sepp Blatter (Getty Images)
    MB: That’s right. I would advise him to stay in Switzerland and monitor the situation and see whether or not, look at the openings that he could use to, if he feels that charges are about to be brought against him either by Swiss authorities or U.S. authorities, what are some ways that he can do in order to avoid serious prosecution. So again, he’s probably being advised by some of the best and brightest in the United States and Europe about all his options at this point.

    ATR: So probably not a good idea for him to go to Canada this weekend for the opening of the Women’s World Cup.

    MB: Probably not a good idea. However, you know, Mr. Blatter, he’s a very experienced operator in international sports, so he could be taking a cue that hey, I’m going to travel wherever I want to. But again, oftentimes clients will listen to lawyers. [laughs]

    ATR: Because he was elected last Friday, and then suddenly there’s an about face a few days later, is it possible that subsequent to the election that investigators got in touch with him and explained to him what’s going on and that gave him some thought about what he wanted to do, or maybe they told him, you better think about stepping down because we’re going to go after you. Can they use that kind of muscle like that?

    MB: Yeah, I think that it could’ve been someone with knowledge of the situation of the investigation in how the case has been unfolding and talking to him, it could be the defense attorneys who have received word through back channels that various governments, the U.S. government, the Swiss government, it could be someone internally within FIFA, or high placed authorities within the soccer world advising him. So who knows who advised him or talked to him, but it’s apparent that someone advised him to step down, because he was very adamant going into the World Congress about his position, his candidacy, and what he was going to do coming out of the election.

    Between last weekend and now, something significant changed and that change had to be that someone informed him, as you alluded to, about what he was facing, how it affected him, and how it’s in the best interest of him personally and the best interests of the organization that he step down. We will probably find out soon as we dig through or whenever the trial takes place about what that may have been or the fact that, in the next few months if the feds find additional information that we later know that they were going to target him if he stayed in Switzerland then we know that he probably got a heads-up or communication that they were targeting him.

    Blatter's resignation leaves his presidential chair to be filled. (Getty Images)
    ATR: And the idea that he could perhaps more likely face charges in Switzerland, but not the United States, could be a result of the collaboration between the United States and Swiss authorities on how best to proceed and if they really did want to convict somebody, go after somebody, maybe the easiest course of action would be to pursue it through the Swiss courts, for somebody like Sepp Blatter?

    MB: Correct, correct. Because it’s going to be difficult to extradite Blatter because of his Swiss nationality, then the next best course of action, if that’s what the U.S. wants to do, is to cooperate and share the information that it has with Swiss authorities who now have begun their own investigation. And that’s where, you know, I’m sure his attorneys are now looking at strategies in terms of, if that does occur, what are some of the ways that he could cooperate, or that he could fight that in Switzerland.

    And that’s why, right now, it’s going to be a rush now for the U.S. to really gather its resources, and its information and evidence against anyone else that they’re targeting and if they realize that they can get dealt those individuals in the United States, then what’s the next best course of action. If those persons are based in their home jurisdictions then having those home jurisdictions prosecute those individuals.

    ATR: And the Swiss, when they made their raid last week at FIFA headquarters, they seized documents and other evidence from FIFA headquarters. Presumably they would share the findings of their seizure with the United States authorities?

    MB: Yes, normally yes. In order for this to have occurred, these multiple jurisdictional raids took cooperation between U.S. authorities and Swiss authorities. And so there would be a understanding that information shared in those operations would be shared with the other jurisdictions to help their investigations. So that’s what the U.S. does when they’re doing these cross-border investigations and operations, agreeing to share information with the host country.

    ATR: And now we are looking at the testimony that was released yesterday of Chuck Blazer, almost a year and a half ago is when he entered this plea into federal court. Anything that you see in that testimony that’s unusual or worthy to comment about?

    Chuck Blazer (Blazer/Blogspot)
    MB: Well I haven’t finished reading the entire transcript, but from what I’ve read summaries of the transcript and the little bit of it I’ve read it seems like for those with criminal proceedings, the one thing that was unusual was that it was done in closed court. And the court, the judge mentioned that on several occasions the proceedings, the unique nature of the testimony being delivered in closed court.

    Because federal courts, generally speaking, are open to the public, anyone can go into any courtroom and hear what’s going on. But because of the sensitive nature of the proceedings, because the U.S. government was now in the midst of an investigation with FIFA, they applied to the district judge to close the courtroom so that Mr. Blazer could actually provide his testimony. And that was to protect the integrity of its investigation. So that was the first thing that shocked me. That was very unique.

    ATR: So I guess it may be a little bit unusual to get a conviction so early in an investigation like this before it’s really come to the full steam.

    MB: Well no, actually what he was entering a plea and in order to do that he had to provide information of all the ledgers he knew, and so this is part of their investigation. And so, the feds were using him to get additional information. And that’s what they’re going to be doing with these other individuals. Once they get them extradited or even now, you know, tell us what you know and we will give you a reduced sentence, or we will give you, we will recommend to the judge that you get your reduced sentence because of your cooperation. And so, in Mr. Blazer’s, which is the first, I’m sure, of several that are going to have similar proceedings before a federal judge in this case.

    ATR: You talked about this a little bit at the start of our conversation, but the long-term implications or developments for sport that could arise in this particular case, something that other federations, other organizations need to watch out for.

    MB: I think this is going to be a unique case, test case for the world community because of several reasons. One, there are allegations or information leaking out of, Mr. Webb I believe came out of an interview indicated or alleging that he’s going to talk about FIFA, they have been involved in bribes or other activities involving national elections or elections in other countries and so it’s going to get more complicated, it’s going to get more messy, but the lessons, one of the first lessons is that for international sporting organizations is that you’re not above the law of your host jurisdiction or the jurisdiction in which you have your headquarters or in which you do your business.

    And so that you’re going to find that the international sports federations are based in Europe, in various countries in Europe, being more mindful of the laws in those countries and making sure that they do business above the form. Also that they do business overseas in the United States or in other jurisdictions be mindful of what they do overseas. And making sure that not only their organization but their affiliates, their confederations or any entity in which reports to or is part their sports federation all the other sports organizations is towing the line in adhering to the law in jurisdictions in which they do business. I think that it’s going to have an implication on global relationships between countries.

    You’ve already seen the Russian president making comments about the U.S. meddling in soccer affairs, and I think that’s going to, it’s not just simply just the U.S. government prosecuting a sports organization. This involves global politics. So you’ll be having these sports organizations be more mindful that they’re wading in these deep waters and that it’s just not about the game on the field or court. You’re dealing with a lot of players that have a lot of power, and FIFA now sees that the U.S. has a long reach. And so I think that you’re going to see, hopefully, much more consideration for how they do business and hopefully it will be a positive impact not only for football but for all sports that there could be a level playing field for host countries and host cities and that we can get a lot of the corruption and illicit activities out of our sports.

    ATR: One other thing I missed out on asking you about earlier is that real estate that’s owned by Jeffrey Webb, the CONCACAF president, here in Georgia. I guess other assets that are in the United States that have been purchased by some of the other defendants, those are all subject to seizure?

    Loganville home of former FIFA VP Jeffrey Webb (ATR)
    MB: Yes sir. And just look at it as if what they would do if this were an organized crime case. Things would be seized by the U.S. government and so it appears as though they’re treating this, the FIFA case, like an organized crime case, a racketeering case. And so yes, it’s any properties that were obtained, were seized through the ill-gotten gains through illicit activities would be subject for seizure by the U.S. government.

    ATR: By the way, why were portions of the Blazer’s testimony redacted?

    MB: Because, well several reasons. One, it could be that it was not disclosed the terms of his plea deal and what the feds were going to offer him. Secondly, he could be talking about information that the feds or prosecutors, the FBI did not want to disclose at the time because they’re continuing their investigation.

    Interview by Ed Hula and transcription by Kyle Rinaudo

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