Miami soccer broker’s fall shocks those around him

FIGHTING BACK:  Aaron Davidson, CEO of the North American Soccer League, pleaded not guilty on Friday in federal court.
FIGHTING BACK: Aaron Davidson, CEO of the North American Soccer League, pleaded not guilty on Friday in federal court. EL Nuevo Herald

Until this week, when his name was entangled in the FIFA corruption scandal that shook international soccer, Aaron Davidson was little known outside the sport’s inner circles.

The 44-year-old Miami attorney and sports marketing executive is a married father of two little girls who lives and works on Brickell Key, speaks four languages, and likes to introduce himself as “a Tex-Mex Costa Rican Jew,” proud of his Mexican-Costa Rican-Jewish heritage and Dallas upbringing.

He is described by former co-workers as “super intelligent,” a workaholic, a family man, and an ambitious salesman who is a master at closing deals.

Davidson used his smarts and multicultural background to rise from a 22-year-old 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 Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and then chairman of the Board of Governors of the North American Soccer League.

But his climb became a catastrophic fall when his name showed up in the U.S. Justice Department’s 47-count indictment on Wednesday, charging top FIFA officials from Latin America and the Caribbean and several South Florida-based executives with “enriching themselves” by participating in a $150 million bribery scheme over the past two decades.

Davidson was arrested by FBI agents in Miami early Wednesday morning, and on Friday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, he pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence if convicted.

He was the first of 14 defendants to appear in U.S. court, and was expected to be released on a $5 million bail package that was secured with houses he co-owned with his wife, Michelle, also an attorney, and various family members.

The indictment accuses Davidson of being involved in three bribery schemes, including a $3 million kickback deal revolving around Caribbean FIFA officials and the marketing and media rights for qualifying matches for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Before Jeffrey Webb and Enrique Sanz became president and general secretary, respectively, of CONCACAF (the confederation for North and Central American and Caribbean soccer) in 2012, they had been 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, according to the indictment. Webb was then president of the Cayman Islands Soccer Federation and a high-ranking CFU official.

His associate, Costas Takkas, told Sanz, then Traffic Sports vice president, that Webb wanted a $3 million kickback from the marketing company as part of its $23 million commercial deal with the CFU, according to the indictment.

Sanz “advised” the company’s president, Davidson, about the solicitation. After Davidson signed the contract with CFU, Traffic Sports paid the bribes to Webb through entities controlled by Takkas toward the end of 2012, according to the indictment. Some were transferred into the bank account of a contractor who was building a swimming pool at Webb’s residence in Loganville, Georgia.

The indictment also says that during 2013 negotiations for CONCACAF’s commercial rights to Gold Cups and Champions League series, Webb directed Sanz to solicit more bribes from Traffic Sports. Jose Hawilla, Traffic’s Brazilian founder, and Davidson allegedly settled on $2 million in kickbacks to win the commercial rights for those tournaments.

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.”

Unbeknownst 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.

Webb and Takkas were among the 14 FIFA officials indicted Wednesday. Sanz, who is battling leukemia, is one of 25 unnamed co-conspirators but has not been arrested. In the wake of the indictment, the NASL suspended Davidson and cut all ties with Traffic Sports USA, which also owns the league’s Carolina RailHawks.

News of Davidson’s involvement in the scandal shocked former co-workers.

“I can honestly say I don’t know anyone who puts more hours into soccer than me, except for Aaron,” said Tom Mulroy, a longtime South Florida soccer promoter who has known Davidson for 10 years, worked with him at Traffic USA, and traveled with him to the past two World Cups in South Africa and Brazil. “He thinks nothing of calling a meeting for a Sunday at 10 p.m. He’d call you after midnight with some little thing. He was on the job 24/7, never stopped.”

“I have only good things to say about Aaron,” said Luiz Muzzi, who worked with Davidson nine years at Traffic, said Wednesday upon hearing the news. “I was very surprised when I saw his name involved. I just knew him as a very hard worker and a guy who was nice to everybody.”

Mulroy said he spoke with Davidson by phone Tuesday night at 10:30 about the CONCACAF Champions League Draw event, taking place Monday night on Miami Beach. Mulroy said based on that conversation, he believes Davidson had no idea the FBI was going to arrest him hours later.

“Aaron is not some horrible guy,” Mulroy said. “He’s got a real human side, loves his wife and his two little peanuts. He got caught up in this, like a boxer dropped into a cage fight. He’s a super intelligent sales guy, sits in the room, assesses the people there, and creates packages that work. That’s probably what got him in trouble in the end.

“When you do soccer business in some parts of the world, if you enter the room with ethics and rules, you’re not a player. I don’t think Aaron wanted to do business this way, but this is like playing in a soccer match where the refs aren’t calling any fouls. If everyone’s throwing elbows, are you going to keep yours down and get your teeth knocked out, or throw up your elbows? But he’s a lawyer, a big boy, and I’m sure he knew what was going on was wrong. It’s a sad story.”

Miami Herald Writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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