Concacaf in a Webb of intrigue

Jeffrey Webb gave a glowing self-assessment in April at the annual meeting of Central and North American soccer chiefs. Under his leadership, Webb said, the regional group had become a case study in rooting out corruption.

“We have created a culture of transparency and accountability within our confederation,” he told the delegates gathered at Atlantis Paradise Island, a Bahamian resort with 11 swimming pools and stunning ocean views.

Last week, as part of a 47-count indictment, United States prosecutors gave a very different portrait of Webb and his organisation, known as Concacaf. According to the indictment, Concacaf’s leadership was corrupt before Webb took office, and the bribe-taking flourished during his tenure despite his frequent pronouncements of reform.

A burly 50-year-old from the Cayman Islands, Webb took over the scandal-plagued organisation in 2012. It’s one of six regional soccer federations that operate under the umbrella of Fifa. The former Cayman Islands banker and member of Fifa’s internal audit committee had become a favourite of Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, Fifa’s president. Blatter said Webb would be his ideal successor.

That was before last week’s indictment, which alleges the same person orchestrated bribes for both Webb and his Concacaf predecessor, Jack Warner. The person is identified as a high-ranking executive of the sports marketing firm, Traffic Sports USA, and is described as co-conspirator #4. Webb is accused of seeking a bribe from Traffic, negotiated by co-conspirator #4, just before becoming Concacaf president.

After he was elected, Webb hired co-conspirator #4 as his general secretary, the number two post. Those and other details in the indictment match Concacaf’s current general secretary, Enrique Sanz, who worked at Traffic Sports before being hired by Webb as general secretary in 2012.

The indictment alleges that Webb and co-conspirator #4 disguised one bribe by funnelling the money through an overseas company that makes soccer uniforms and balls.

In a statement released last Friday, Traffic Sports said it would “continue to co-operate fully with authorities” in connection with the allegations made against Fifa and company officials. “At this moment, it is otherwise unable to comment on the matter.”

Sanz wasn’t charged or mentioned by name in the indictment but, after the allegations, the confederation put him on a leave of absence. He could not be reached for comment.

Warner, who was among those indicted, said in a statement that he had not been questioned and “have been afforded no due process”. He added: “I reiterate that I am innocent of any charges.”

Concacaf was a soccer backwater when Warner was elected president in 1990, with few prominent tournaments and relatively little revenue. A former history teacher from Trinidad, Warner and his general secretary, an American named Chuck Blazer, ran Concacaf for more than 20 years and built it into a financial and political power.

In the process, according to the indictment, Warner and Blazer were enriching themselves. Warner accepted a bribe to vote in favour of South Africa as host country for the 2010 World Cup, orchestrated a vote-buying scheme for the 2011 Fifa presidential election, and accepted illegal payments from Traffic Sports USA, among other alleged crimes.

Warner resigned in 2011 after the vote-buying allegations emerged, and Fifa suspended an inquiry into his role in the alleged plot. Blazer resigned later that year.

As part of the Fifa inquiry that became public on Wednesday, Blazer pleaded guilty to racketeering, conspiracy and other charges. He could not be reached for comment.

In early 2012, Webb, the long-time president of the Cayman Islands Football Association, emerged as Warner’s likely successor. He was chairperson of a “normalisation committee” Blatter summoned to Zurich to straighten out Caribbean soccer.

Webb was president when the Cayman Islands became a member of Concacaf and Fifa, eventually triggering a yearly stipend and access to development funds. It was part of an effort, started by Warner, to boost the clout of the Caribbean’s voting bloc: adding overseas territories such as the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans.

Outside of soccer, Webb worked as manager of business development at Fidelity Bank (Cayman) Ltd, and he owned a fast-food franchise called Captain’s Bakery with Horace Burrell, president of Jamaica’s soccer association. Burrell was suspended from soccer for six months as part of the vote-buying scandal involving the 2011 Fifa presidential race.

Since taking over Concacaf, Webb and Sanz have touted their efforts at transparency and reform. But Webb released scant details publicly about Concacaf’s finances and expenses, including his own salary.

The allegations in the indictment announced last week may indicate that Webb’s reform efforts were anything but. It states that he was arranging bribes even before he took over Concacaf. In 2012, Webb got support for his candidacy from co-conspirator #4, then a Traffic Sports executive, who paid $50 000 from Traffic Sports’s account to an account in the Cayman Islands. Prosecutors allege it was controlled by Costas Takkas, an associate of Webb’s and former general secretary of the Cayman Islands Football Association.

About the same time, Webb, with Takkas’s help, solicited a bribe from Traffic Sports to help the company win the commercial rights to the qualifying matches for Caribbean soccer clubs for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the indictment says. As a high-ranking member of the Caribbean Football Union, Webb was now negotiating on behalf of the island nations.

Near the end of those negotiations, Takkas met co-conspirator #4 and told him Webb wanted a $3-million bribe in exchange for giving Traffic Sports the business, the indictment alleges. A deal was struck, and in August 2012, Traffic Sports signed a $23-million contract with the Caribbean Football Union.

The bribe money was sent through an elaborate maze of companies to disguise that Webb was the ultimate beneficiary, the indictment states. The money, prosecutors allege, ultimately paid for a real estate purchase in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and a pool at Webb’s home in nearby Loganville. – © Bloomberg

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