FIFA blamed for inadequate checks on ex-marketing partner

2nd July 2008, Comments 0 comments

A Swiss court says FIFA has failed to properly oversee market payments worth hundreds of millions.

2 July 2008

ZUG - A Swiss court ruled Wednesday that FIFA failed to properly oversee marketing payments worth hundreds of millions of euros in a case that revealed how sports officials for years received large sums for arranging lucrative sponsorship and broadcast deals.

The three-judge panel in one of Switzerland's biggest fraud trials said FIFA was aware of the financial difficulties of its now defunct marketing partner ISL/ISMM months before it went bankrupt, but did not carry out checks of the "control account."

World soccer's governing body was ordered to pay about CHF 118,000 francs in costs for lodging the criminal complaint that sparked the fraud inquiry, the court said.

The finding was one of a series handed down in a complex decision involving six former executives of ISL/ISMM, FIFA's marketing partner for almost two decades.

The six men were cleared of most of the fraud charges resulting from the company's collapse seven years ago.

But the court in the canton (state) of Zug found a key figure, Jean-Marie Weber, guilty of embezzlement.

Weber, a longtime friend of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, is described in court documents as the strongman behind the ISMM group of companies.

The court said Weber had transferred CHF 90,000 to his personal account for his own purposes and that it considers his refusal to explain the payment as damaging to his case.

Weber's lawyer, Marc Engler, said his client would likely appeal the conviction for embezzlement on procedural grounds.

"Our client doesn't have to prove his innocence by declaring the reason for the payment. He has to be assumed innocent," Engler said.

The judges also found two other defendants - Hans-Juerg Schmid and Hans-Peter Weber, unrelated to Jean-Marie Weber - guilty of deviously obtaining false documents in multiple cases.

The two men set up sham companies with the sole aim of diverting funds from the ailing ISMM mother company, which collapsed in May 2001 leaving debts estimated at USD 300 million.

The ISL/ISMM bankruptcy tore a hole in FIFA's finances and forced the Zurich-based sports body to scramble to find new buyers for television and marketing rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

The financial crisis at FIFA led some of its senior officials to complain that leading figures including Blatter had failed to properly oversee marketing deals.

During the trial it emerged that ISL/ISMM made payments of CHF 18 million over several years in order to secure lucrative marketing deals.

Among those explicitly named in court documents as recipients of payments is the head of the South American soccer federation.

Nicolas Leoz, a 79-year-old lawyer from Paraguay who has been CONMEBOL president since 1986, was sent two payments in 2000 totalling USD 130,000, the documents said. Leoz has not been accused of acting illegally and has previously denied any connection with the marketing company.

The judges in Zug said there was no evidence the payments had been bribes, but that they were clearly linked to the sale of marketing and television rights for major sports events.

The money was part of a larger amount totalling over CHF 100 million that ISL/ISMM funnelled through Liechtenstein accounts over the course of more than a decade. Such payments are not illegal in Switzerland.

Roland Buechel, a former employee of ISL/ISMM, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the verdict.

"The law allows for these payments, but I'm really disappointed that the Swiss taxpayer will end up with the bill," said Buechel, who is now a local counsellor for the Swiss People's Party in the nearby city of St. Gallen.

The six defendants are being awarded damages ranging from CHF 17,000 francs to CHF 190,000 francs, less costs.

Lead prosecutor Marc von Dach said he would consider appealing Wednesday's verdict.
"In complex business cases you always have to expect that innocent verdicts can be handed down," he said.

Prosecutors have left open whether a second trial may be opened into whether any FIFA officials received illegal payments from ISL/ISMM. Von Dach said he was aware of the possibility of a second trial but could not comment as he was not involved in that investigation.

FIFA could not immediately be reached for comment.

[AFP / Expatica]

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