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Monday, May 30, 2011

FIFA temporarily bans Bin Hammam but clears Blatter of corruption charges


The ethics committee of world soccer body FIFA has temporarily banned from any soccer activity Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Hammam, Jack Warner the head of the North American and Caribbean soccer association CONCACAF and two Caribbean Football Union executives on suspicion of bribery.

The committee cleared FIFA president Sepp Blatter of having had knowledge of the alleged bribery and having failed to report it. The decision paves the way for Mr. Blatter to stand as the sole candidate in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for June 1 after Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before Sunday’s committee hearing.

Ethics committee deputy chairman Petrus Damaseb said the committee had taken its decision on the basis that the four individuals were “innocent until proven guilty.” Mr Damaseb said the committee’s task in Sunday’s hearing was not to determine guilt or innocence but to establish whether there had been an infringement of the FIFA code of ethics. He said the committee had concluded that there was an appearance and a case to answer on the basis of documents presented by various parties as well as the testimonies of the accused and their accusers.

The banning of the four executives that include beside Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner CFU executives Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester will be for the period that it will take to conduct a full investigation. He said he expected the investigation to be concluded in July.

The FIFA investigation was sparked by allegations by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer that Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner had made the offer to Caribbean Football Union (CFU) members at a meeting on May 10 and 11 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s meeting with the CFU was on the same day that the British enquiry was hearing evidence from former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman and was reviewing a letter from The Sunday Times that alleged that Qatar had paid off two FIFA executive committee members.

Mr. Bin Hammam has admitted that he paid for the CFU delegates’ expenses. British newspaper The Sunday Times reported that the payment of up to $40,000 per member was in envelopes with the members’ names on it.

Mr. Bin Hammam insisted that Mr. Blatter also be questioned by the committee on the grounds that Mr. Warner had informed him of the payments. The committee said Mr. Blatter did not have an obligation to report the alleged payment because it had not occurred at the time he was informed and therefore did not constitute a breach of FIFA’s code of ethics. It said that reporting an intention would have been seen as an attempt by Mr. Blatter to smear his challenger, Mr. Bin Hammam.

Mr. Blazer, the paper reported, hired a Chicago-based former prosecutor, John Collins, to gather evidence for his allegations. Mr. Collins was among those who testified in front of the ethics committee on Sunday.

At least five Caribbean football associations, including those of the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, are reported to have refused the payments. Mr. Collins’ evidence that was handed over to FIFA is said to include sworn statements from CFU delegates who rejected the payment, emails between Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner regarding the Trinidad meeting and pictures of the cash. 

At the news conference in which the banning of Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials was announced FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcker said he had received an email minutes before the conference from the Puerto Rican soccer association affirming that it had been paid $40,000 from Mr. Bin Hammam and would be returning the funds.

Mr. Bin Hammam asserted earlier that the timing of the accusations so close to the FIFA presidential election suggests they were part of a plan to “damage” him and “force him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA presidency.”

Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner have denied any wrongdoing and Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of the charged.

Mr. Bin Hammam announced the withdrawal of his presidential candidacy hours before the committee hearing in a statement on his website. Mr. Hammam’s surprising decision is believed to have been taken in consultation with his lawyers with whom he has been huddled for the past 48 hours. British newspaper The Sunday Times said hours after Mr. Bin Hammam’s withdrawal that it had seen fresh evidence of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

“Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed,” Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari FIFA executive committee member said. “The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election.”

The mounting allegations against Qatar cast serious questions about Mr. Bin Hamamm’s FIFA candidacy irrespective of whether he is found to have engaged in illicit practices in his election campaign. Mr. Bin Hammam, a key player in Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign, is likely to find it increasingly difficult to deny that he had any knowledge of alleged Qatari bribery and circumvention of FIFA rules.

Bitter infighting between Mr. Blatter and Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling family, that produced the FIFA investigation has cast a shadow over the organization’s presidential election scheduled for June 1, the second and last day of FIFA’s general assembly.

FIFA officials said the election would go ahead with Mr. Blatter as the sole candidate despite calls that it be postponed because of the corruption scandal, the biggest since its founding 107 years ago.

British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson earlier called on FIFA to delay the election. “The election is turning into a farce. Both of the candidates are accused of corruption and I don’t see how it is possible to vote for either of them when the allegations are so serious.”

Mr. Robertson described the crisis as FIFA’s “Salt Lake City moment,” a reference to the 1999 bribery scandal that forced the International Olympic Committee to reform. “This happens to people when they do jobs for too long. They live in an ivory tower and lose any connection with the world outside,” Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Blatter has headed FIFA for the past 13 years while Mr. Bin Hammam has chaired the AFC since 2002and has been a FIFA executive committee member for 15 years. Mr. Blatter’s tenure has been marked by recurrent scandal.

Perhaps more serious than Mr. Robertson’s call for reform, which is backed by the United States and Australia are signs that the corruption scandal is worrying FIFA’s sponsors. 
“Obviously all that has happened in the past few days is neither positive for sport nor for FIFA,” said Adidas Chief Executive Officer Herbert Hainer.

Mr. Bin Hammam campaigned for the election on a platform that calls for greater transparency within FIFA and blames Mr. Blatter for the organization’s tarnished image. FIFA has witnessed a series of corruption scandals in recent months with 10 of its 24 executive committee members accused of corruption or improper behavior.

Two of the ten were banned last year after having been taped by The Sunday Times soliciting bribes.

The corruption charges include allegations that Qatar may have won the right to host the 2022 World Cup by bribing at least two of FIFA’s executive committee. The investigation into Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Blatter could lead to a cancellation of the FIFA executive committee vote last December that awarded the tournament to the Gulf state. Qatar has denied that it employed bribery in its successful bid campaign.

The Sunday Times said on Sunday that it had seen new documentary evidence that allegedly showed how Qatar plotted to circumvent FIFA rules in its bid. It said it had presented the evidence to a British parliamentary enquiry into soccer governance.

The evidence, the paper said, showed that Qatar had offered FIFA executive committee members cash for projects in exchange for their votes. It said the evidence was included in the January 4, 2010 minutes of a Qatari bid team meeting. The evidence suggests that Qatar considered setting up certain "initiatives" regardless of whether they were allowed under FIFA rules.

The minutes discuss plans to announce up to three "CSR" (corporate social responsibility) initiatives during last July's World Cup finals in South Africa, which would violate FIFA bidding guidelines. The paper says the minutes quote Ali al-Thawadi, the Qatar bid's deputy chief executive who chaired the January 4 meeting, as saying “If FIFA regulations prevent these initiatives then a way has to be found to do these under a different name  (eg through the embassy or as the State of Qatar)." 

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