Aaron Davidson, the former president of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and a longtime sports marketing executive, is scheduled to plead guilty in Brooklyn, New York, federal court on Thursday for his part in the bribery and corruption scandal that last year rocked FIFA, the world governing body of soccer.
Davidson was one of 42 people charged in May 2015 in a U.S. probe into $150 million in bribery, racketeering and money laundering involving FIFA officials and associates.
The indictment accused Davidson, who ran the Miami branch of Brazilian sports marketing firm Traffic, of being complicit in three bribery schemes, including a $3 million kickback deal revolving around Caribbean FIFA executives and the lucrative marketing and media rights for qualifying matches for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Davidson was unavailable for comment, but a source with knowledge of the case said he will accept full legal culpability for his mistakes, and explain to the court that there were mitigating circumstances that should reduce his sentence.
His plea will state that he did not directly negotiate or receive any bribes, and that any deals he signed off on were at the behest of Traffic’s owner, Brazilian Jose Hawilla, who has already pleaded guilty in the case and who unbeknownst to Davidson cooperated with authorities and wore a recording device during a meeting which implicated Davidson. His position is that his involvement in the scandal is at the lowest level compared to FIFA executives who were demanding and receiving multimillion dollar kickbacks.
Davidson, a 45-year-old married father of two young daughters, has been under house arrest in his Brickell Key condominium for 15 months. He has been working since April as director of business development for Plant the Future, a nature-inspired design firm in Miami that specializes in botanical art and interior scaping.
Davidson is an attorney who had used his tireless negotiating skills and multicultural background (he speaks five languages) to rise from a World Cup volunteer and translator to a golf executive in Latin America to president of soccer marketing power broker Traffic USA, to president of the Strikers, and Chairman of the Board of the North American Soccer League.
According to the indictment, Davidson became entangled in Traffic’s bribery scheme around 2012, during negotiations for marketing and media rights to World Cup qualifying matches.
Jeffrey Webb and Enrique Sanz, who in 2012 became president and general secretary of CONCACAF (the confederation for North and Central American and Caribbean soccer), were involved in Traffic Sports' bid for the marketing and media rights to the Caribbean Football Union's qualifying matches for the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. Webb was then president of the Cayman Islands Soccer Federation.
His associate, Costas Takkas, told Sanz, then Traffic Sports vice president, that Webb wanted a $3 million kickback from the company as part of its $23 million marketing deal with the CFU, according to the indictment.
Sanz told then-Traffic president Davidson, about the solicitation. After Davidson signed off on the contract with CFU, Traffic Sports paid the bribes to Webb. Some were transferred into the bank account of a contractor who was building a swimming pool at Webb's house in Georgia.
The indictment also says that during 2013 negotiations for CONCACAF’s commercial rights to Gold Cup and Champions League, Webb directed Sanz to demand more bribes from Traffic Sports. Hawilla allegedly settled on $2 million in kickbacks to win the commercial rights for those tournaments, and Davidson was aware of the deal.
During a March 2014 meeting in Queens, New York, between Davidson and Hawilla, Davidson was recorded wondering aloud about the legality of the deal.
''Is it illegal? It is illegal,'' it quotes Davidson as saying about the arrangements. ''Within the big picture of things, a company that has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.'
Unknown to Davidson, Hawilla had been implicated in the corruption scandal earlier, was cooperating with law enforcement, and wore a recording device to the meeting. Hawilla later pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit more than $151 million in bribery payments. He paid $25 million at the time of his plea agreement. Davidson, as part of his plea deal, has also forfeited compensation made through tainted rights deals.