Arrest of Cayman FIFA official Jeffrey Webb reveals two lives

In this Wednesday, May 23, 2012 file photo the newly elected president of CONCACAF Jeffrey Webb talks to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, left, as they arrive at the meeting of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), prior to the two-day congress of FIFA in Budapest, Hungary. Webb is among several soccer officials who were arrested and detained by Swiss police on Wednesday, May 27, 2015, at the request of U.S. authorities after a raid at Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich.
In this Wednesday, May 23, 2012 file photo the newly elected president of CONCACAF Jeffrey Webb talks to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, left, as they arrive at the meeting of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), prior to the two-day congress of FIFA in Budapest, Hungary. Webb is among several soccer officials who were arrested and detained by Swiss police on Wednesday, May 27, 2015, at the request of U.S. authorities after a raid at Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich. AP

Every time Jeffrey Webb, the widely regarded heir apparent at the world’s largest and most lucrative sporting empire, returned home, one to-do item always topped the list: his $10 hair cut.

“He liked it smooth, clean,” Mark “the Genius” Cole said from in the working class Eastern Avenue barber shop in the shadows of this Caribbean tax haven’s gleaming offshore banks and anti-money laundering regulator.

But U.S. prosecutors say Webb, 50, was anything but the smooth, clean-cut guy he portrayed as he climbed soccer’s hierarchy to become a powerful vice president in charge of all broadcast and marketing rights for professional soccer tournaments from the United States to the Caribbean to Central America.

Webb was arrested last week along with six others during a dawn raid at a $4,000-a-night Zurich hotel as part of the wide-ranging bribery and kickbacks scandal engulfing FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. Currently, fighting extradition to the United States from a Swiss jail, he is accused of soliciting and accepting millions in bribes from sport marketing firms and executives in exchange for sponsorship and media rights for regional soccer tournaments.

In all, 14 people were indicted on U.S. racketeering and bribery charges, including Jack Warner, the Trinidad and Tobago lawmaker and one-time powerful soccer boss, whom Webb replaced in 2012 as president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) amid another vote-rigging bribery scheme. The job made Webb, who partly grew up in Tampa and lived in the Atlanta-area, a vice president of FIFA.

“I am shocked,” said Cole, his barber. “This man is not a corrupter. He is of good character; always joking and smiling.”

Webb, Warner and other influential FIFA officials are accused of taking more than $150 million in bribes during the past 24 years in return for providing lucrative media and marketing rights to soccer tournaments, including World Cups.

Warner has maintained his innocence. On Wednesday, in a paid political ad aired over Trinidadian television, Warner said he was ready to spill an “avalanche” of secrets about “certain transactions at FIFA,” including its president Sepp Blatter, who the day before announced his intentions to resign. Blatter hasn’t been charged and was elected last week to a fifth consecutive term despite the U.S. corruption probe and a separate criminal investigation by Swiss authorities into the controversial awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 Wold Cup to Qatar.

A U.S. legal expert said for federal prosecutors to convict Blatter of a crime, they will need at least two witnesses at FIFA’s vice president level.

Those who know Webb say they are trying to reconcile the charming, mild-mannered man they know with the one accused of soliciting and accepting at least $6 million in bribes.

Is he the unassuming, Cayman banker who still gets his $10 hair cut near where he grew up?

Or is he the powerful soccer executive, as the 47-count U.S. indictment reads, who used kickbacks from sports marketing firms to build a swimming pool at his swank six-bedroom, eight bathrooms Loganville, Georgia home?

In this nation little known for soccer (its men’s national soccer team is ranked 189 out of 209 worldwide), many are struggling to understand how the longtime head of the Cayman Islands Football Association — who achieved international reverence in the much-revered sport — could be at the center of the biggest scandal engulfing the world’s most popular sport.

“Instead of cleaning up, sounds like he joined up,” soccer fan Noel Warner, 56, said. “It’s sad, really sad.”

Hailed as a reformer, Webb was unanimously elected CONCACAF president in May 2012, becoming FIFA’s youngest soccer confederation president in history at age 47. It was a proud moment in this British overseas territory of 58,000 residents.

That day with Blatter looking on, Webb pledged to reform the scandal-scarred body, and return the sport’s integrity.

Federal prosecutors say nothing could be further from the truth.

“Rather than repair the harm done to the sport and its institutions, however, these defendants and co-conspirators quickly engaged in the same unlawful practices that had enriched their predecessors,” prosecutors said.

Months before the May vote, Enriquez Sanz, who would later be appointed CONCACAF’s secretary general, solicited a $50,000 bribe on Webb’s behalf from the Miami-based sports marketing firm, Traffic Sports USA, where Sanz was vice president, prosecutors said.

The money was transferred from Traffic’s operating account to a Cayman company controlled by Webb’s “attache” and longtime friend, Costas Takkas. Takkas, a British national who also has been indicted, is a former secretary general of the Cayman football association, which replaced Webb as president during an emergency meeting here Monday night.

As secretary general, Sanz continued to seek bribes on Webb’s behalf. Among them: a $1.1 million payment from Traffic for the media rights to CONCACAF’s 2013 Gold Cup and 2013-14 and 2014-15 Champions Leagues. A year later, Webb was paid $2 million when the contract came up for renewal, prosecutors said.

“Almost immediately after taking office,” prosecutors said Webb and Sanz, “resumed their involvement in criminal schemes.”

Webb went through great lengths to conceal the payments, prosecutors said, including having a false invoice submitted to Traffic to be paid to an overseas soccer uniform company connected to Takkas.

It is widely believed that Sanz, who is battling leukemia and has not been charged in the bribery case, is cooperating with federal authorities. Two of Webb’s other co-conspirators are talking to prosecutors, according to sources familiar with the probe. They are Davidson, who has been indicted and is in secret plea negotiations with prosecutors, and Traffic founder Jose Hawilla. Hawilla, who pleaded guilty in December to racketeering, money laundering and wire fraud, once wore a wire during a meeting with Davidson, who at the time questioned the legality of the bribes.

“Is it illegal? It is illegal,” Davidson asked Hawilla, according to the indictment. “Within the big picture of things, a company that has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.”

In Grand Cayman, where Webb impressed many with his work ethic and managerial skills, close friends and family have all closed ranks, including former Cayman Islands Sports Minister Mark Scotland, who once called Webb’s CONCACAF election “a proud moment for the Cayman Islands.”

“With his can-do attitude combined with his leadership skills and signature diplomatic style, Mr. Webb’s contributions to the growth of the sport of football in the Cayman Islands are unsurpassed,” said Scotland, who was at the FIFA meeting in Switzerland when Webb was arrested.

After answering his front door to a Miami Herald reporter, Scotland declined to comment. Others contacted by the Herald did not return messages. Meanwhile, Webb’s voter registration address is an overgrown vacant lot with banana trees, a few feet away from the home he shared with his ex-wife and daughter.

Scotland’s wife Cindy heads Cayman’s anti-money regulator, the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority. The regulator said this week that it is monitoring the allegations, which include Webb’s bribe payments being funneled through Cayman’s Fidelity Bank. Webb, described on CONCACAF’s website as “managing and directing investment banking,” at Fidelity, was in fact a manager at the bank’s now closed money transfer center.

Among those who had accounts at Fidelity was Takkas, whom prosecutors say had $1 million wired from Traffic and credited to a Fidelity account in the name of his Kosson Ventures company. Also, $500,000 of a $1.5 million bribe to Webb was also routed to Takkas’ account at the bank, prosecutors said. Takkas then wired part of the payment to a Georgia swimming pool builder for work Webb was doing at the 9,851-square-foot Loganville, Georgia, home he shared with his wife, Kendra Gamble-Webb, an Atlanta physician, according to the indictment.

Webb also used some of the money to purchase properties in Stone Mountain and Conyers, Georgia, prosecutors said.

In a profile of their lavish August 2013 nuptials by Wedding Style Magazine at the St. Regis in Atlanta, Gamble-Webb said she met Webb at the Clevelander during a weekend visit to South Beach for a bachelorette party. The couple has a baby boy.

Locals say it has been months since Webb visited Cayman, where he is chauffeured around in a black rental SUV and put up at the Ritz Carlton. But those trappings of wealth, and the references to him as “Mr. President,” come with the job they say.

Image-conscious, even from childhood, Webb never played professional soccer. His passion for the game led him to head a local soccer team, the Strikers FC. He often entertained players in his backyard before games and personally solicited funds for the team to travel. In 1991, he became president of the Cayman Island Football Association (CIFA). A year later, he lead the island’s entry into CONCAF and FIFA.

Out of public view, Webb was becoming a FIFA star. In 1994 he was elected to the Caribbean Football Union’s executive committee and joined FIFA’s protocol committee. He served as deputy chairman and chairman of FIFA internal audit committee. And in March 2013, Blatter put him in charge of FIFA’s anti-discrimination and anti-racism task force.

That same year, while attending a gala in Grand Cayman, Blatter hailed Webb as a possible successor.

Whether Blatter meant it or not, the endorsement has stuck here as Caymanians try to make sense of the accusations about a man who liked nice things but wasn’t extravagant. Among the allegations is that with Takka’s assistance, Webb used his growing influence to solicit a $3 million bribe from Traffic as part of a $23 million Caribbean Football Union deal for rights to the qualifier matches in advance of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

The biggest payout, however, was supposed to come from a deal with Eugenio Figueredo, head of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL). It involved $110 million in bribes as part of a scheme to bring a special “Centenario” edition of Copa America, marking the 100th anniversary of the South American tournament, to Miami.

Figueredo and Webb made the announcement at a May 2014 press conference in Bal Habour.

Both Webb’s critics and defenders acknowledge that he did do some good for the local football scene. He brought tournaments and Blatter, and got FIFA to promise two new soccer fields, which have not yet been completed. But they also find fault with him for not using his rising star power to do more to lift the island’s soccer program.

“Jeff went up in status, and Cayman’s ranking went down,” said Antwan Seymour, a former player on the national soccer team. “He was more focused I guess on his personal growth than the nation’s.”

Herald Staff Writer Jay Weaver and correspondent Shurna Decou contributed to this report.

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