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Stopping Bribery in International Sports: Why FIFA’s Proposed Good Governance Framework Is a Good Beginning, But Just a Beginning

In late October, the governing body of international soccer, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), announced its new “road map” for reform.  FIFA claims that its new approach will ultimately lead to zero tolerance for bribery and corruption within the international soccer body.

Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, FIFA’s president, promised reform upon his re-election this past June, as the organization repeatedly made headlines due to allegations of vote-fixing for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup selections.  Now, Blatter has announced the formation of several task forces, with a mandate to propose reforms that are focused on transparency and compliance.

At the same time, though, news of corruption within FIFA and the world of international sports continues to break, leading observers to question whether Blatter’s reforms can work.

In this column, I will discuss the proposed FIFA governance reforms and argue that while the framework is a good step, the substance of the reforms currently remains vague, and needs to be further particularized.

I’ll also suggest that other international sports organizations should also heed the call for greater transparency and accountability, to bring integrity and public confidence back to international sports.

Even with Reforms Planned, A FIFA Probe of Alleged Corruption in the Caribbean Widens

In May 2011, at a meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, a candidate for FIFA’s presidency , Mohamed bin Hammam, allegedly offered $40,000 bribes to Caribbean soccer officials and the president of the Caribbean  Soccer Union, in exchange for their votes.  The allegations sparked a FIFA investigation in which the punishments, handed down on October 14, ranged from reprimands to an 18-month suspension.  Bin Hammam was permanently suspended from FIFA and FIFA’s then-Vice President, Trinidad and Tobago’s Jack Warner, resigned under a cloud.

Then, late this October, FIFA announced that it wanted to speak with 10 more Caribbean officials in its investigation.  Their cases will be submitted by mid-November to the FIFA Ethics Committee.  That brings the number of Caribbean officials currently under investigation by FIFA to 26.

FIFA’s Scandals Aren’t the Only Ones Tarnishing the Image of International Sports

Moreover, FIFA’s scandal is hardly alone in the world of international sports.  Last Wednesday, November 2, Orlando Silva, Brazil’s Sports Minister, resigned amid a corruption investigation.  His resignation, significant in itself, also highlights concerns about the  ability of Brazil to host both the World Cup, in 2014, and the Olympics, in 2016.

And just this week, news reports have indicated that Lamine Diack, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), is under investigation by the Ethics Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for allegedly taking bribes from Swiss marketing firm ISL (the same company implicated in the FIFA scandal) when it had an exclusive marketing contract for the IAAF Championships.  The IAAF will announce in Monaco on Friday, November 11, whether London will be awarded the 2017 World Championships; its rival is Doha, Qatar’s capital.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a trio of Pakistani cricketers were recently prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for corruption and match-rigging.

Sadly, corruption in international athletics goes back quite a while.  In late 1998, for instance, the Salt Lake City Olympics suffered a bribery scandal.  Eventually, it was revealed that bidders for the 2002 Winter Games had granted delegates from the IOC almost any wish they requested, providing Super Bowl tickets and scholarships, and purchasing furniture and consumer goods.  Jean-Claude Ganga of the Republic of Congo infamously received more than $200,000 in cash payments and medical treatment, while his wife, Eugenie, reportedly maxed out a bid-committee credit card while shopping at Wal-Mart.

More recently, in Fall 2010, the voting to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was compromised by allegations of corruption. The allegations were based on information from a whistleblower who had been involved with the Qatari bid.  The whistleblower has since retracted her allegations.

And even without questions of bribery, there are larger questions of whether FIFA’s bid rules are full of loopholes and leave room for governments to win bids in ways that are unconventional and which depart from traditional notions of open and fair competition.  Some news accounts report that FIFA’s bid requirements fit on two A4 pieces of paper—in contrast with more detailed Olympic bidding requirements.

Finally, it seems that Qatar was perfectly within FIFA rules when, according to news accounts, it paid $50,000 to a South African hospital in seeking the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and spent another $1.6 million to host a soccer congress of African nations in Angola—thus preventing the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Japan from making their own bids for the 2022 World Cup at the conference.

FIFA’s New Reform Framework

As noted above, FIFA president Blatter has announced reforms aimed at promoting transparency and accountability.  Reform is urgently needed, as FIFA faces many seemingly well-founded criticisms.

Critics say that the votes of FIFA’s Executive Committee (which selects countries to host the World Cup) should be publicly disclosed, as secrecy breeds corruption.  They also charge that FIFA’s conflict-of-interest rules are unrealistic, and are not sufficiently comprehensive, allowing certain suspect payments or transactions to occur.

FIFA’s new reform framework—and a framework is truly all it is, at this stage—proposes to set up a Good Governance Committee. The Committee is to be formed by this December, and the entire road map for reform is meant to be completed by June 2012.

The Good Governance Committee would be comprised of internal and external stakeholders, ranging from referees and soccer fans, to outside civil society organizations and government officials.  Under the Committee’s authority, several task forces would be established.  One task force would focus on ethics, working to update the FIFA Ethics Code and to develop procedures seeking to stamp out corruption.

FIFA already has a Code of Ethics—adopted in 2004 and updated in 2006—that prohibits a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee from accepting cash payments or “gifts and other benefits that exceed the average relative value of local cultural customs” from third parties.  To clarify the prohibition, FIFA may need to promulgate a guidance or a set of interpretive notes that focuses on typical gifts.

Blatter said that FIFA will also, this December, reopen a case related to ISL, a defunct marketing firm that had done work for FIFA  and allegedly paid kickbacks to FIFA officials and will reveal court documents from the investigation.

To date, FIFA has blocked a Swiss court from revealing which officials repaid $6.1 million in alleged kickbacks from ISL-linked World Cup television deals.  They made the repayments on the condition that their identities remain anonymous.  ISL collapsed with debts of $300 million in 2001.  FIFA has often defended its officials by insisting that commercial bribery was not a crime in Switzerland at the time, and that no officials were charged in a criminal investigation into ISL’s bankruptcy.

Are the Proposed FIFA Reforms Enough? Some Features of the Reforms

Transparency International (TI), the international anti-corruption NGO, has welcomed FIFA’s initial steps, and was asked to advise FIFA as it began its efforts at reform.

“They have addressed several key issues but there is still a lot of work to do to restore credibility and we will have to wait until December to see how far and how quickly they act,” said Sylvia Schenk, TI’s sports adviser.

TI submitted its own report to FIFA, and has emphasized the importance of creating a multi-stakeholder group to oversee FIFA’s activities, in order to promote accountability.  As noted above, the committee will be called the Good Governance Committee.  But as TI noted in its report, the Good Governance Committee is not enough.  FIFA also needs to spell out ethical rules of the road for its members.

TI notes, for example, that FIFA needs to supplement its code of ethics with (1) a clear conflict-of-interest policy under which leaders register their interests publicly (for instance, on the FIFA website); (2) disclosure of the income of leading staff members and the remuneration of members of the Executive Committee and other key bodies; (3) guidelines for the giving and receiving of gifts at all levels of football (i.e., soccer) governing bodies; (4) reporting and approval rules for invitations received by FIFA officials, staff and volunteers; and (5) special guidelines for high-risk areas.  Moreover, (6) The composition, scope, and approach of the multi-stakeholder group need to ensure its independence from FIFA.

Thus Far, FIFA’s Proposed Reforms Have Met with International Skepticism

The UK still remains skeptical of the FIFA process.  There, the  Parliament’s Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee has repeated its call for a “full, independent investigation” of the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and suggested that FIFA’s new anti-corruption measures do not go far enough.  The Committee, which has received responses from FIFA on its July report on England’s 2018 bid, said allegations around the process remain uninvestigated, and pointed to wider governance failings—even in light of the whistleblower’s retraction:

“Our concern is that the governance failings revealed by this incident are symptomatic of a wider governance failure within FIFA, and we stand by our recommendation that FIFA commission a full, independent investigation of the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and for the outcome to be made public.”

Some FIFA critics have called for the creation of a World Anti-Corruption Committee focused on sports corruption—akin to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).  WADA plays an important role in ensuring the integrity of how sports organizations test athletes with respect to the use of banned substances.  However, it is often much harder to detect whether a bribe was paid, than whether there is a banned substance in an athlete’s bloodstream.  Moreover, it is unclear how an international sports corruption authority would interact with national anti-corruption commissions and prosecutors.

Thus, at this stage of the fight against corruption in international sports, the best approach may be to have major  sports associations and nonprofits update their ethical codes, close loopholes, and focus on how to bring greater transparency—and thus, integrity—into their own processes.

International leaders—in the G20 and elsewhere—might also want to take up the issue of international sports corruption.  They, too, ought to emphasize the need for better transparency mechanisms, and should ensure that governments and sporting groups work hard to rebuild public trust in the integrity of soccer and other sports.

FIFA notes in its own mission statement that it stands for integrity, and claims that “We believe that, just as the game itself, FIFA must be a model of fair play, tolerance, sportsmanship and transparency.”  As FIFA embarks on its roadmap, let’s hope its journey is not an empty one, and that the organization can finally come closer to living up to its stated goals.

Anita RamasastryAnita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Development. She is also a member of the Law, Technology and Arts Group at at the Law School. Ramasastry writes on law and technology, consumer and commercial law, and international law and globalization.
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