Soc­cer scan­dal could de­rail U.S. mo­ment

Pres­ti­gious event is to be played in States for first time, but Copa Amer­ica or­ga­niz­ers face bribery charges.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Whar­ton and Nathan Fenno

In the spring of 2014, in­ter­na­tional soc­cer of­fi­cials made a his­toric an­nounce­ment: Copa Amer­ica, one of the world’s old­est and most-pres­ti­gious tour­na­ments, was com­ing to the U.S. for the first time.

Amer­i­can of­fi­cials saw the choice as val­i­da­tion of the game’s con­tin­ued growth in this coun­try. The Rose Bowl and other Cal­i­for­nia venues quickly jumped in line to serve as hosts.

“Ab­so­lutely amaz­ing,” said Cobi Jones, a for­mer U.S. na­tional team player who serves as a tele­vi­sion an­a­lyst. “The first time to have a tour­na­ment like that in the U.S. — that’s a pretty sig­nif­i­cant step for us.”

But now fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in a much-pub­li­cized in­ves­ti­ga­tion of FIFA, the sport’s gov­ern­ing body world­wide, have charged Copa Amer­ica or­ga­niz­ers with re­ceiv­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in a long-stand­ing pat­tern of bribery.

That, in turn, has raised doubts about whether the 2016 edi­tion of the qua­dren­nial tour­na­ment will ac­tu­ally reach Amer­i­can shores.

“Given ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened, it’s pre­ma­ture to say what the fi­nal re­sult on that will be,” said Su­nil Gu­lati, pres­i­dent of U.S. Soc­cer.

Copa Amer­ica is run by one of the six con­ti­nen­tal con­fed­er­a­tions un­der the FIFA um­brella.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the event has brought to­gether na­tional teams from across soc­cer-mad South Amer­ica. With pow­er­houses such as Brazil and Ar­gentina in the field, it ar­guably ranks be­low only the World Cup and UEFA Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship in pres­tige.

To cel­e­brate the tour­na­ment’s 100th an­niver­sary,

the South Amer­i­can con­fed­er­a­tion known as CON­MEBOL de­cided to hold a spe­cial edi­tion in the U.S. and in­clude teams from through­out the West­ern Hemi­sphere.

U.S. Soc­cer nar­rowed the list of po­ten­tial host cities to 24 this year. The fi­nal­ists in­cluded Los An­ge­les, San Diego and San Fran­cisco.

Copa Amer­ica was one of a dozen eye-open­ing ex­am­ples of cor­rup­tion de­tailed by the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment in the 161-page in­dict­ment that was made public last week, along with records from re­lated cases. So far, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has re­sulted in the in­dict­ment of 14 high-rank­ing soc­cer of­fi­cials and busi­ness­men charged with par­tic­i­pat­ing in bribery and kick­back schemes to­tal­ing more than $150 mil­lion.

Al­le­ga­tions sur­round­ing Copa Amer­ica fo­cus largely on Aaron David­son and Jose Haw­illa, ex­ec­u­tives with an in­ter­na­tional sports mar­ket­ing con­glom­er­ate known as the Traf­fic Group.

Haw­illa and two branches of the con­glom­er­ate have al­ready pleaded guilty in De­cem­ber to rack­e­teer­ing, money laun­der­ing and wire fraud, agree­ing to for­feit $151 mil­lion. David­son, who faces sim­i­lar charges, pleaded not guilty last week.

Traf­fic said it will “con­tinue to co­op­er­ate fully with au­thor­i­ties” and op­er­ate as nor­mal. An at­tor­ney for Haw­illa and the con­glom­er­ate did not re­spond to a re­quest for fur­ther com­ment; nei­ther did David­son’s at­tor­ney.

Traf­fic’s in­volve­ment with the 2016 tour­na­ment dates back five years, when the com­pany sued CON­MEBOL and a ri­val sports mar­keter — Full Play Group — for breach of con­tract. Traf­fic ex­ec­u­tives were fight­ing to ac­quire the com­mer­cial rights to fu­ture Copa Amer­ica tour­na­ments.

There was a lot of money at stake be­cause sports mar­keters can take those rights and re­sell them to cor­po­rate spon­sors for a profit. Ac­cord­ing to U.S. pros­e­cu­tors, the main par­ties in the law­suit se­cretly ne­go­ti­ated a set­tle­ment. Traf­fic would join Full Play and an­other Ar­gen­tine com­pany — Tor­neos y Com­pe­ten­cias — in a new ven­ture called Datisa S.A.

CON­MEBOL then agreed to sell Datisa the world­wide com­mer­cial rights to the 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2023 Copa Amer­ica tour­na­ments for $318 mil­lion.

In ad­di­tion, pros­e­cu­tors said, Datisa com­mit­ted to pay­ing $100 mil­lion in bribes, with each of the part­ners re­spon­si­ble for a third of that to­tal; the money would go to 11 CON­MEBOL of­fi­cials.

The re­cip­i­ents in­cluded CON­MEBOL Pres­i­dent Eu­ge­nio Figueredo, who is also a FIFA vice pres­i­dent, and past CON­MEBOL Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Leoz, both of whom were named in last week’s in­dict­ment.

In mid-2013, Traf­fic paid the first $13 mil­lion of its bribe money in wire trans­fers, some of which went into Swiss bank ac­counts and shell com­pa­nies, court doc­u­ments said.

At a March 2014 meet­ing, David­son and Haw­illa dis­cussed their com­pany’s busi­ness prac­tices in re- gards to Copa Amer­ica and other tour­na­ments for which they al­legedly paid un­der the ta­ble.

“Is it il­le­gal? It is il­le­gal,” David­son told Haw­illa, ac­cord­ing to court records. “Is it bad? It is bad.”

But Datisa wasn’t fin­ished. The spe­cial 2016 U.S. edi­tion of Copa Amer­ica would be op­er­ated in co­op­er­a­tion with CON­CA­CAF, the con­ti­nen­tal con­fed­er­a­tion that over­sees soc­cer in North and Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean. At an un­spec­i­fied date, Datisa bought ad­di­tional com­mer­cial rights from CON­CA­CAF for $35 mil­lion — and agreed to a “mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar” bribe, pros­e­cu­tors said.

That money was ear­marked for an­other soon-tobe in­dicted fig­ure, CON­CA­CAF Pres­i­dent Jef­frey Webb, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

A Full Play ex­ec­u­tive named Mar­i­ano Jinkis called David­son to brain­storm about get­ting the bribe to Webb, the in­dict­ment said. David­son, who earned a law de­gree from South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity in 1996, cut Jinkis off, not want­ing to dis­cuss the mat­ter over the phone. They agreed to con­tinue their con­ver­sa­tion in per­son the fol­low­ing week. Pros­e­cu­tors did not spec­ify how Webb re­ceived the bribes.

Soon af­ter­ward in May 2014, CON­MEBOL and CON­CA­CAF held their cel­e­bra­tory news con­fer­ence in Miami. The event was recorded and the video was posted on­line.

“This is an ir­refutable mes­sage that foot­ball is able to carry for­ward the best pur­poses,” Figueredo said. “We are go­ing, with foot­ball, to build 100 years of im­mor­tal­ity.”

Speak­ing in a low, even voice, Webb noted that “It’s been a lot of hard work go­ing into mak­ing this a re­al­ity.”

Af­ter­ward, Haw­illa met with his part­ners from Full Play and Tor­neos y Com­pe­ten­cias to dis­cuss their part in the ef­fort. Ac­cord­ing to court records, the mood was not up­beat:

“All can get hurt be­cause of this sub­ject,” said Ale­jan­dro Burzaco of Tor­neos y Com­pe­ten­cias. “All of us go to pri­son.”

Mary Altaffer As­so­ci­ated Press

AARON DAVID­SON, right, leaves fed­eral court Fri­day af­ter plead­ing not guilty to rack­e­teer­ing, money laun­der­ing and wire fraud in the case in­volv­ing or­ga­niz­ers of the Copa Amer­ica soc­cer tour­na­ment.

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