Soccer

Probe: South Florida officials at epicenter of dirty dealings

A U.S. Justice Department probe into a $150 million international soccer bribery scheme found that South Florida-based officials were at the center of many of the dirty deals.

Among those indicted were top FIFA officials from its North and Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) regional headquarters, which moved to Miami Beach from New York in 2012. FBI and IRS agents raided the office early Wednesday.

CONCACAF president, Jeffrey Webb, who is also a FIFA vice president and executive committee member, was implicated as was Jack Warner, CONCACAF’s former president, who also once served as a FIFA vice president and executive committee member.

The draw for the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League is scheduled to be held Monday at the New World Symphony Center. The indicted officials were among those expected to attend. No word on whether that will be postponed.

A CONCACAF statement read: “The Confederation of North, Central America and the Caribbean Association Football is deeply concerned by today’s developments, in the arrest of several international football officials including those belonging to our Confederation. The Confederation will continue to cooperate with the authorities to its fullest capacity.”

Also accused of corruption is Traffic Sports USA, a Miami-based soccer marketing firm that until recently owned the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Its president, Aaron Davidson, was arrested late Tuesday night, accused of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

Davidson, 44, is the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the North American Soccer League, of which the Strikers are a member. The NASL suspended him Wednesday.

FBI agents raided the North American office of Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) at 1000 Fifth St. as part of the international investigation into a $150 million bribery scandal involving FIFA.

According to the indictment, Traffic Sports USA’s parent company, Brazil-based Traffic Group, transferred millions of dollars from banks in Miami to offshore accounts to secure lucrative marketing and broadcasting rights to tournaments such as the Gold Cup, Copa America and World Cup qualifying matches.

The indictment said Davidson was a central figure in brokering such deals and discussed bribery with his boss, José Hawilla, in March 2014. “Is it illegal? It is illegal. Within the big picture of things, a company that has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.”

Hawilla pleaded guilty at the end of 2014 and agreed to forfeit more than $151 million in bribery payments, according to court records. He paid $25 million at the time of his plea agreement.

Hawilla also agreed to cooperate, providing insider knowledge on the extent of Traffic Sport’s role in the bribery conspiracy, records show. Traffic Sports and another company, Traffic Sports International, pleaded guilty to a wire-fraud conspiracy charge earlier this month.

Another Miami connection in the alleged scheme: a soccer official listed as co-conspirator No. 4 in Wednesday’s indictment, who the Miami Herald has learned is Enrique Sanz. He succeeded Blazer as CONCACAF’s general secretary. Before assuming that position in 2012, Sanz was vice president at Traffic Sports. Sanz is listed among 25 unnamed co-conspirators in the indictment.

According to news reports, Sanz has been battling leukemia. When contacted for a comment, Sanz’s defense attorney Joseph DeMaria, stated: “At present, he and his family are focusing on his health.”

Former Traffic executives were surprised by Wednesday’s news.

“I was watching CNN this morning over breakfast and was shocked when I saw Traffic was involved,” said Luiz Muzzi, a soccer executive for Traffic from 2002 to 2012, now Director of Soccer Operations for FC Dallas of Major League Soccer. “I spent nine years working with a lot of those people, including Aaron, and I have only good things to say about them. I was on the soccer side, dealing with players and Strikers team issues, and don’t know all the ins and outs of the business side, but I never saw anything shady. I hope the allegations prove to be false.”

Said Tom Mulroy, Traffic’s vice president of grassroots marketing from 2010 to early 2015: “I never saw anything suspicious, and I had a great experience working for Traffic, but I’m a New York street kid and I know international soccer business is not always on top of the table. It’s hard to operate in that infrastructure and be lily-clean. I hope this investigation changes the way soccer business is conducted.”

CONCACAF reported itself to U.S. tax authorities in 2012. The organization had not paid taxes over several years when its president was Warner and secretary general was Chuck Blazer.

The Justice Department’s focus on South Florida sharpened in late 2013 when Blazer pleaded guilty to racketeering, fraud and money laundering conspiracies stemming from the bribery scheme. He agreed to turn over $1.9 million in illicit payments and to make a second payment upon his pending sentencing, according to federal court records.

Blazer also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in New York, pointing the finger at Hawilla.

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