How US probe of FIFA bends global norms

World reaction to the US indictments of world soccer officials shows the prosecution of bribery across borders can challenge global assumptions about corruption.

AP Photo
Boys play soccer near Johannesburg May 28. When South Africa won the right to host Africa's first World Cup, it was seen as a heartwarming reward for Nelson Mandela and a country that had shaken off decades of apartheid. Today, the picture seems very different. The image of South Africa's World Cup in 2010 has been shattered by allegations that its bid over a decade ago was involved in bribes of more than $10 million to secure FIFA votes — possibly with the knowledge or involvement of the South African government.

Often criticized for its global overreach, the United States has received mostly positive reactions to its indictments last week of nine officials at the body governing world soccer for bribery and kickbacks. Immediate celebration came from fans and soccer stars. “Today, soccer wins, transparency wins,” said former soccer great Diego Maradona. 

But in addition, Switzerland opened its own probe of FIFA, which is headquartered in Zurich, on how it selected Russia and Qatar in 2010 for coming World Cup tournaments. Argentina and Brazil also began investigations. And the United Nations is reviewing its partnerships with FIFA.

In applying the long arm of its law beyond its borders, the US has touched a universal desire to keep sports clean. But this transnational legal action also represents a trend among many countries – not just the US – to target foreign citizens for corruption. The indicted FIFA officials are accused of various types of fraud involving American institutions or digital networks. 

“If you touch our shores with your corrupt enterprise, whether that is through meetings or through using our world class financial system, you will be held accountable for that corruption,” said FBI Director James Comey. 

The FBI chief also justified the indictments as a challenge to the assumption that bribery is a global norm: “There’s a danger that cynicism creeps into our lives and that folks shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s just the way things are.’ That may be the way things are but that is not the way things have to be.” 

Last year, the US officially tied its fight against global corruption to its national security. It has stepped up enforcement of the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a law lightly enforced until recently. In 2014, the amount of fines imposed against companies under the law reached $1.6 billion, up from $1.3 billion in 2012. The FBI also set up three squads to probe international corruption. And the Justice Department’s Criminal Division has placed personnel in more than 45 countries.

“Fighting foreign corruption is not a service we provide to the global community, but rather a necessary enforcement action to protect our own national security interests and the ability of our US companies to compete on a global scale,” says Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell.

Better cooperation between countries to curb corruption has improved since 1997 when a group of advanced countries known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development adopted an anti-bribery convention. In a recent report on 400 corruption cases, the OECD found one third involved self-reporting by companies. Direct law enforcement by a country accounted for 13 percent while cooperation between countries accounted for another 13 percent. Media reporting or whistleblowers made up the rest. 

“Executives of companies of all sizes are ... urged to lead by example and implement compliance programs,” the OECD recommended.

Just as effective may be high-profile prosecutions like the one involving FIFA. Each new intervention abroad under US law can help bring another country to act as a partner, says Ms. Caldwell. 

But each case can also have a multiplying effect. In a 2011 study by scholars Sarah Kaczmarek and Abraham Newman, those countries that experienced a US intervention on corruption were 20 times more likely to enforce their domestic laws. 

As the FBI chief says, “the way things are” does not have to be “the way things have to be.” Honesty can be the new world norm.

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