Criminal proceedings opened against Sepp Blatter; £1.35m payment to Michel Platini questioned

The Swiss attorney general has confirmed that criminal proceedings have been opened against Sepp Blatter for criminal mismanagement and misappropriation of funds.
According to the Swiss criminal code, Blatter could, if convicted, face a custodial sentence of up to five years depending on the circumstances of the offence. The news broke on Friday afternoon, shortly after FIFA cancelled a planned press conference at which Blatter was set to appear to confirm the dates of the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

At the time, media and FIFA members were baffled by the late cancellation; it is now clear that the press conference was axed as Blatter was being questioned by Swiss authorities in Zurich, with his lawyer Lorenz Erni having reportedly arrived at FIFA headquarters.

The attorney general released a statement explaining the charges, alleging that Blatter “violated his fiduciary duties” with regard to a 2005 TV contract signed with the Caribbean Football Union, which at the time was headed up by Jack Warner. Swiss TV channel SRF reported earlier this month (English link via the Daily Mirror) that Warner bought 2010 and 2014 World Cup TV rights for just under £400,000 in a deal that was signed off by Blatter, and sold them on for around £12 million. Blatter is also alleged to have made a “disloyal” payment to UEFA president Michel Platini of two million Swiss Francs (£1.35 million), “which was allegedly made for work performed between January 1999 and June 2002 ; this payment was executed in February 2011.” Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) statement did not say why the payment was “disloyal” or what became of the money. Platini said in a statement: “Regarding the payment that was made to me, I wish to state that this amount relates to work which I carried out under a contract with FIFA and I was pleased to have been able to clarify all matters relating to this with the authorities.” The OAG statement also confirmed that Blatter’s office has been searched and data seized. FIFA issued a statement a few minutes later confirming the news, saying that they have been cooperating with the investigation since May, and that they will make no further comment.

The 79-year-old Blatter has been in charge of FIFA since 1998. He has always maintained that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. Attorney Richard Cullen, Blatter’s US lawyer, said a contract the Swiss Attorney General said Blatter signed in 2005 with the Caribbean Football Union was “properly prepared and negotiated by the appropriate staff members of FIFA.” “Certainly no mismanagement occurred,” he said in an emailed statement. Investigative journalist Jamil Chade reported via Twitter that Blatter will not be suspended from the FIFA presidency.

A source close to FIFA said that as Blatter has not been arrested, charged or indicted, it would probably be for him to decide whether he stays in his post until February, when he is due to step down. However, the source said: “It is over for him now, it is finished.” A Swiss law enforcement source said that Platini had provided Swiss prosecutors with evidence against Blatter and was not regarded as a target of investigators at this point. Platini had been hot favourite to replace Blatter as FIFA president, but that succession now seems more doubtful. Bookmaker William Hill has lengthened Platini’s odds of landing the top job in football from 1-3 to 11-10.

In a sign of concern over the implications of the deepening investigation, Russia was quick to say that it would not affect its hosting of the 2018 World Cup, one of the biggest and lucrative events in sport. FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar is one of the strands under scrutiny from U.S. and Swiss authorities investigating the alleged corruption in the organisation — a source of concern for powerful sponsors like McDonald’s Corp, Coca-Cola and Visa. The scandal exploded in May, when 14 football officials and sports marketing executives were indicted.

The Swiss OAG said Blatter was questioned by its representatives, and Platini, the former French football superstar who runs UEFA, was also asked to give information. Platini is favourite to win the election to replace Blatter when he steps down in February. A Swiss law enforcement source said that Platini had provided Swiss prosecutors with evidence against Blatter and was not regarded as a target of investigators at this point. The source said that Swiss prosecutors were also in touch with several other witnesses at various levels of FIFA and its affiliates who have expressed interest in giving evidence about corruption in the organisation. Swiss investigators have been putting together their case against Blatter for some time, a law enforcement official said. The official said Blatter is not in custody and is free to travel, though he has largely avoided leaving Switzerland since May.

Richard Cullen, a U.S. lawyer for Blatter, said: “Mr. Blatter is cooperating and we are confident that when the Swiss authorities have a chance to review the documents and the evidence they will see that the contract was properly prepared and negotiated by the appropriate staff members of FIFA who were routinely responsible for such contracts, and certainly no mismanagement occurred.” A spokeswoman for U.S. prosecutors declined to comment. The FBI said it did not comment on other agencies’ investigations.

Blatter has survived a series of scandals during his term in office including widespread accusations that Qatar bought the right to stage the 2022 World Cup. Qatar has always denied any wrongdoing. Despite widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation when the U.S. indictments were issued in May, accompanied by a series of arrests, he refused to withdraw his candidacy for another term at the helm of FIFA. He was duly re-elected, telling delegates: “Football needs a strong and experienced leader.” As the scandal reverberated around the world and his position became untenable, he announced only days later that he would step down, though for the time being he remains in office until the election of his successor. “FIFA has been my life … what counts most for me is FIFA and football around the world,” he said at the time.

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