America Plays World Police Yet Again Against FIFA

America Plays World Police Yet Again Against FIFA

The U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment of 14 top FIFA officials should make us define the limits of American power, not cheer.
Jim Pagels
By

There appears, yet again, to be no corner of the globe too remote for America to flex its imperialist muscles.

Early Wednesday morning, Swiss authorities arrested seven top FIFA officials in Zurich for extraction to face corruption charges in the United States. A federal indictment released Wednesday in New York by the U.S. Department of Justice charges 14 members of the organization with 47 counts of racketeering and bribery. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also taken an interest in the soccer federation’s controversial process that led to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a decision highly suspected to have been driven by bribes.

Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, is not among the 14, though according to comments made by newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the DOJ is “in the process of seeking additional defendants.” None of the officials charged are U.S. citizens, nor did any of their alleged actions take place on American soil.

Why an American law enforcement agency (in this case, Lynch’s Eastern District of New York prior to her becoming attorney general) was investigating the Switzerland-based FIFA for transactions with largely foreign marketing firms and agreements to host its quadrennial soccer tournaments in Russia and Qatar, though, is rather perplexing. Under what jurisdiction does the U.S. Department of Justice have any authority to render sanctions against FIFA? The New York Times offers this:

United States law gives the Justice Department wide authority to bring cases against foreign nationals living abroad, an authority that prosecutors have used repeatedly in international terrorism cases. Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider.

Via the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), instituted in 1977 in the post-Watergate climate that pushed far-reaching anti-corruption legislation through Congress, the DOJ and Securities and Exchange Commission have brought cases against roughly 10 to 15 corporations per year over the last ten years, as well as 15 to 25 separate cases annually against individuals. In 2014, FCPA charges racked up over $1.5 billion in fines for U.S. law enforcement, the second-highest sum on record.

Yet Another Dangerous Expansion of Federal Power

Because FIFA is a much-reviled organization, news of its indictment has been loudly cheered by many without hesitation. However, while it’s one thing for U.S. law enforcement to regulate domestic businesses, it’s entirely another to use American taxpayer money and force to regulate the actions of foreign firms. Many of the same people who criticized the United States playing world police in Iraq are now cheerleading this news about the DOJ playing just that role in regard to FIFA.

American taxpayer money and force should not regulate the actions of foreign firms.

Lynch already has a history of stretching the limits of her power. She has defended the highly controversial use of civil asset forfeiture during her Senate hearing, calling them “important tools” for her office. The practice allows law enforcement to take property from citizens merely suspected of illegal activity, even if they haven’t been charged with a crime, and only return the property should individuals prove they are innocent. During her time as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Lynch’s office employed civil asset forfeiture to seize hundreds of thousands of assets from innocent individuals without ever charging them of a crime or setting a court date, only reluctantly returning the funds after years-long court battles.

Not to mention that the U.S. criminal justice system, which incarcerates citizens at by far the highest rate in the world at 716 per 100,000, has raised eyebrows abroad for its overzealous use of imprisonment.

Can We Even Collect Foreign FIFA Officials?

There seems to be a dispute about how easily the DOJ will be able to bring FIFA officials stateside. Rutgers University sports law professor Jason Belzer writes in Forbes, “Extradition to the United States is unlikely to be a major obstacle. As seen during the war on terrorism, the US Justice Department have almost carte blanche authority to bring indictments against foreign nationals living abroad.” According to Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann, though, it’s unlikely the arrested FIFA officials will come stateside anytime soon. “Extraditions are complicated and can take years, sometimes many years,” he noted on Twitter. “Also safe to assume the FIFA leaders being charged have a good amount of money to spend on top attorneys who can engineer delay after delay.”

According to Harvard constitutional and international law professor Noah Feldman, the legality of the DOJ’s charges is highly ambiguous.

The United States has had an extraction agreement in enforcement with Switzerland since 1997, but McCann has already brought up the question on the limits of American legal force abroad. “Since FIFA officials will be charged with U.S. crimes, one key legal issue will be how Justice Dept establishes jurisdiction to charge them,” he commented on Twitter. According to Harvard constitutional and international law professor Noah Feldman, the legality of the DOJ’s charges is highly ambiguous. It’s worth noting, though, that Switzerland has announced its own investigation into the World Cup decisions of 2018 and 2022.

Imagine the outcry if a justice department from Romania or Pakistan filed charges against top National Basketball Association officials and forced extraction to face trial abroad, claiming they had every right to do so because the NBA once conducted business with a company that has operations in those countries. The United States, which heavily lobbied to host the 2022 games and lost, is now appearing on the international stage as a spurned lover out for vengeance.

Bribes Apparently Matter Only When Illegal

Even if we assume FIFA did take bribes from foreign governments in exchange for awarding the World Cup to Qatar, why should the private association be barred from taking money from the highest bidder for its product? Largely the same actions already occur quite often in the United States—only a bit more transparently—in which cities and states regularly pony up hundreds of millions in crony subsidies for billion-dollar professional sports teams in the National Football League, NBA, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer, effectively bribing them to build stadiums and play games in particular locations. Is the DOJ also going to levy corruption charges against dozens of American sports teams or major city councils? Apparently, the lesson for FIFA to learn is to simply stop trying to hide the bribes and call them “subsidies.”

Apparently, the lesson for FIFA to learn is to simply stop trying to hide the bribes and call them ‘subsidies.’

Based on the evidence, it’s highly likely FIFA bureaucrats took bribes from the Qatari government. The DOJ alleges that FIFA conspired to “shut out competitors and keep highly lucrative contracts for themselves through the systematic payment of bribes and kickbacks.” However, this strikes me more as simply an extremely dysfunctional business practice that FIFA and its marketing partners should clean up themselves than under force from a foreign state.

A better crime for the United States to investigate would be Qatar’s revoking of World Cup stadium workers’ passports, effectively forcing them to stay in low-paying jobs with extremely poor work conditions. More than 1,000 workers have already perished in these ghastly work camp-like environments, but that is entirely the fault of the Qatari regime rather than of FIFA. However, such charges are unlikely to be as lucrative for U.S. law enforcement as those brought against FIFA.

FIFA, no doubt, is a reprehensible organization whose shady business practices have endured for so long, and been so profitable, due to its monopoly position in regulating international competitions of the world’s most popular sport. These gross abuses of private corporate finances and public funds to attract sporting events should matters for the involved corporations to solve and citizens of Qatar to sort out with its emir—yes, Qatar is an absolute monarchy.

The outside world can stage peaceful international protests or boycotts of the tournament, opening up the door for a new, more transparent, better soccer federation to finally usurp FIFA’s place. State force from a superpower on the other side of the globe, though, should give serious pause to those who care about the limits of American government authority.

Jim Pagels is a regular contributor at Forbes and has written for outlets such as Reason and FiveThirtyEight. You can follow him on Twitter @jimpagels.

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