Alleged AFC cover-up effort highlights Asian soccer’s lack of proper governance
By James M. Dorsey
A senior executive of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) allegedly requested in 2012 at least one of his subordinates to tamper with or hide documents related to enquiries by independent auditors and FIFA into management of the group by Mohammed Bin Hammam, the AFC’s ousted president and vice president of the world soccer body, according to claims made by a subordinate in two statements and sources with first-hand knowledge close to the Kuala Lumpur-based group.
The official who reportedly requested the tampering or hiding of documents bearing his name or signature, AFC general secretary, Dato' Alex Soosay, subsequently alleged in a police report on Aug 17, 2012, that Mr. Bin Hammam had embezzled some $10 million, the Malaysian Commercial Crime Investigation Department (JSJK) told the Malay Mail. The police handed the case over to the Malaysian attorney general who decided not to take further action.
Mr. Soosay this week vehemently denied the alleged cover up in a telephone conversation with the Malay Mail as he was boarding a flight from Dubai to Bahrain. “If there was something, wouldn't they have investigated me? This is just a smear (campaign) against me. There is no such thing, “Mr. Soosay said. "Where is this coming from and why now?" he asked.
Mr. Soosay stressed that the investigations had been shut down and that he had not been asked by FIFA or any other part to make a statement. "This whole thing is being taken out of context… There were no cash advancements ... everything (was) documented. PwC has given their report, FIFA has investigated. Everything is settled and the case closed. There is no such thing," Mr. Soosay said, referring to an independent audit in 2012 by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) on behalf of the AFC of Mr. Bin Hammam’s financial and commercial management of the group
In a written and signed statement dated July 26, 2012 and a video statement taped the same day by Michael John Pride, a FIFA security officer, AFC Finance Director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong claimed that Mr. Soosay made his request during a 30-minute conversation that took place three days earlier on July 23 to which he had been summoned by the general secretary.
Asked this week by the Malay Mail to confirm Mr. Soosay’s request, Mr. Kuan refused to comment. “I do not wish to speak about this,” Mr. Kuan said before hanging up the phone.
Mr. Kuan suggested in the video that it was not the first time that Mr. Soosay had made the request. "When it was confirmed PwC was going to do the investigation, I had a separate conversation with him (Soosay) and he told me clearly that anything related to him, don't give to them (PwC)," Mr. Kuan said.
Mr. Kuan quoted then AFC Director Member Associations Relations and Development James Johnson as telling him that Mr. Soosay had made a similar request to Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson has since left the Asian group to join FIFA. Mr. Johnson, who was at the time reportedly supervising the investigations, was not available for comment.
Mr. Kuan asserted in his statements that Mr. Soosay, concerned that he could be implicated in the Bin Hammam investigations, asked Mr. Kuan whether he believed that the AFC general secretary could be “blamed or has committed crimes or violated any laws based on the information that could be contained in the audit.” Mr. Kuan quoted Mr. Soosay as saying “protect me” and asking, “Can you tamper or hide any documents related to me?”
In his statements, Mr. Kuan said Mr. Soosay had not identified specific documents but that he had concluded from the conversation that the AFC general secretary was referring to documents that he had signed, particularly related to cash advances to Mr. Bin Hammam, a key element in the PwC’s audit.
In response to Mr. Kuan’s refusal to act on the request, Mr. Soosay said, according to Mr. Kuan: “I should have tampered or got rid of the documents before PwC conducted this audit.”
Mr. Kuan said that he had advised Mr. Soosay to “let them investigate. I think everybody understood the situation he (Soosay) was in. When Hammam was in AFC, everybody knew that if he asked you to do something, you had to do it."
The sources close to the AFC said Mr. Pride taped the video statement and took the written statement as a private investigator rather than in his capacity as a FIFA official. The statements were made, the sources said, for the record in case questions about Mr. Soosay’s alleged request or the documents were posed rather than as the basis for an investigation.
In his written declaration, Mr. Kuan said that “this statement made accurately by me sets out the evidence that I would be prepared, if necessary, to provide to a football governing body and court as a witness.”
The sources said that Mr. Kuan had discussed Mr. Soosay’s July 23 request with Mr. Johnson who, according to the video, was present during the recording of Mr. Kuan’s statement by Mr. Pride. Mr. Kuan said he made his written and video-taped statements on advice of Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Kuan said in his statements that he had rejected the request and had not tampered or hidden any documents. He said he told Mr. Soosay that it would be wrong to tamper with documents and would make the situation worse if they went missing.
Asked in the video why Mr. Soosay would want the documents tampered with or hidden, Mr. Kuan said: "I'm not sure ... possibly because he is afraid he may be accountable for signing the payment instruction and that he didn't question it." He added that "If suddenly it goes missing, then everybody's integrity will be questioned," Mr. Kuan asserted in the video days before he reported documents as missing that it was "quite impossible" for anyone to tamper or disappear documents from his office.
One of the sources said that Zhang Zhilong, the then acting AFC president, advised Mr. Pride within days of Mr. Kuan’s statements that documents had gone missing from the AFC
Asserting that the AFC could be held liable for the payments by the WSG shareholder, may have been used to launder money, and could have breached sanctions against Iran and North Korea, the PwC audit said that “our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary and the Director of Finance. As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions. We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice,” the PwC report said.
In a letter to Mr. Soosay dated September 27, 2012, Mr. Bin Hammam’s lawyer, Eugene Gulland of law firm Covington & Burling LLP, asserted that the general secretary had a conflict of interest as a result of PwC’s findings and demanded that he excuse himself from any involvement in the investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam.
Mr. Gulland asserted further that Mr. Soosay had been intimately involved in the negotiation of the WSG contract as well as a broadcast agreement with Al Jazeera. “It appears that you failed to reveal (to PwC) the existence of the Ad Hoc Committees which negotiated these contracts (on which you sat) nor the numerous internal review meetings both before and after the conclusion of the contracts in which you were involved…. In these circumstances it should be abundantly clear that you were completely conflicted with respect to the matters presently under investigation,” Mr. Gulland wrote.
In response to Mr. Gulland’s demand, Mr. Zhilong accused the lawyer in a letter to AFC members dated October 17, 2012 of adopting “intimidatory tactics” in Mr. Bin Hammam’s battle to defeat charges of bribery, corruption and financial mismanagement. Sources close to the AFC said Mr. Jilong wrote the letter in response to a barrage of emails and other communications in which the Qatari national allegedly threatened and intimidated AFC executive committee members and staff.
Sources close to the AFC as well as the audit said the documents were also related to a separate investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam that was being conducted on behalf of FIFA by the Freeh Group International Solutions, LLC, a global integrity and risk compliance consultancy founded by former US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Louis J. Freeh.
“All of this was related. It was a complicated period. Only a small circle within the AFC knew about it. The documents were all connected to investigations we were doing,” said one of the sources.
The leaking of Mr. Kuan’s statements came as AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa stood to be re-elected at an AFC congress on April 30 in his home country of Bahrain. Sheikh Salman, who is the only candidate in the election and will automatically also become FIFA vice president, was initially elected in 2013 to succeed Mr. Bin Hammam and expected to introduce reforms that would ensure proper governance of the AFC.
Instead, Sheikh Salman since taking office buried the PwC audit and moved to centralize power within the group in his hand. In doing so, Sheikh Salman reneged on promises to establish a committee to look into political interference in Asian soccer and to report within a month on the status of the PwC audit. The burying of the audit effectively precluded an investigation of Mr. Soosay after he was identified in the audit as having been one of three AFC executives who had authorized payments related to Mr. Bin Hammam that were being called into question by PwC.
“The audit’s purpose was to deal with Bin Hammam. It served its purpose. It’s been buried,” said an AFC executive committee member, suggesting that establishing facts as the basis for reform had not been the group’s primary purpose in commissioning the audit.
Sheikh Salman last year persuaded the AFC to adopt a resolution that solidified his power base by automatically nominating the group’s president as FIFA vice president. The move meant that the Asian FIFA vice presidency would no longer be an elected position.
As a result, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, who had been elected as FIFA vice president, would no longer be able to run for that office. A leading reformer in world soccer, Prince Ali is challenging FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the world soccer body’s presidential election scheduled to be held next month.
In an open letter last year to the Asian soccer community, Prince Ali charged that Sheikh Salman and “other AFC officials” were “driven purely by politics,” Prince Ali said it was “unfortunate” that the AFC was not focusing its “energies and valuable time to improving the game in Asia and addressing the myriad challenges that AFC faces in marketing, grassroots football, women’s football, transparency and accountability.”
Ironically, Mr. Soosay’s attempt to shield himself from the PwC audit leaked as Mr. Blatter in his weekly column in a FIFA magazine heaped praise on the Asian soccer body saying that “the AFC symbolises the importance of football as a school of life.” Sheikh Salman has promised that Asia would vote for Mr. Blatter in next month’s FIFA election.
The PwC audit concluded that Mr. Bin Hamman had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account. It also questioned a $1 billion master rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sports Group, which was negotiated by Mr. Bin Hammam.
The audit advised the AFC to seek legal counsel to ascertain whether the contract could be cancelled or renegotiated. It also suggested that the AFC solicit legal advice on potential civil or criminal charges against Mr. Bin Hammam. The PwC report constituted the basis for FIFA’s decision in late 2012 to ban the Qatari for life from involvement in professional soccer.
Mr. Kuan made on behalf of the AFC the first of three reports to the police that documents had been stolen from the AFC five days after recording and signing his statements, the Malaysian police told the Malay Mail.
In November 2012, the Malaysian public prosecutor dropped charges against Kong Lee Toong of involvement in the theft of documents from the AFC. Mr. Kong was the husband of Amelia Gan, who was AFC’s director of finance under Mr. Bin Hammam. Ms. Gan has since joined Qatar Stars League as a club licensing and business planning officer.
The PwC report asserted that Ms. Gan starting in 2006 had managed the AFC account which Mr. Bin Hammam used “to facilitate personal transactions as if they were his personal bank accounts.” It also alleged that Ms. Gan was involved in negotiating AFC’s contract with WSG. “When the President (Bin Hammam) wished to facilitate a transaction from this account, he would instruct his Personal Assistant or Ms Gan, depending on the type of transaction,” the PwC report said. The report said Ms. Gan was aware of multiple unexplained payments made by Mr. Bin Hammam, including $20,000 to a purported FIFA lobbyist.
Mr. Kong surrendered himself to police in after Mr. Kuan reported the theft of the documents on July 31, according to sources close to the AFC and Agence France Presse. In that police report, Mr. Kuan stated that had he noticed that an “important document, which contained a bank report/statements belonging to former AFC president (Mohammad b Hammam), was missing from my office,” according to the sources. Mr. Kuan told the police that he and Mr. Johnson had last reviewed the document on July 13, 2012 and that “after that I kept the document back in a storage drawer” until he discovered that it was missing.
The sources said that the AFC within hours of reporting the missing documents received a letter from Mr. Bin Hammam’s Malaysian lawyers asserting that the group was responsible for the disappearance of documents related to what the lawyers described as "personal payments."
A second Malaysian police report dated August 11, according to the sources, quoted the AFC as reporting that AFC staffer Selina Lee Siew Choo, “had admitted taking the file (containing the documents) and said she had handed them to a male Chinese known as Tony, the husband of Ms Amelia Gan, who was the former (AFC) Finance Director. Selina had also admitted making a copy of a bank document advice for a transaction worth USD $2 million, which was a payment from ISE,” International Sports Group, the WSG shareholder. The payment referred to payments totalling $14 million into Mr. Bin Hammam’s AFC sundry account in advance of the signing of the company’s contract with the Asian soccer body.
A subsequent August 15 police report, the sources said, quoted an AFC official as saying that Ms. Choo on August 2 had “admitted stealing the file from the drawer in my office as instructed by Ms Amelia Gan (former finance director at AFC). Her instructions were to steal the file which showed the document/ bank advice containing the US$2 million transaction from ISE and surrender them to her husband, Tony Kong.”
The report quoted Mr. Kuan as saying that “I have my suspicions/reasons to believe that the theft of the file was to dispose evidence involving a case of wrongful management of AFC accounts by Mohammad Bin Hammam in the wake of a financial audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers.”
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog