23rd November 2017

FIFA’s Lai decision renews pressure on OCA head Sheikh Ahmad

A FIFA decision to ban Richard K. Lai for life places renewed pressure on Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, who is subject to investigations by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after being implicated in Department of Justice (DoJ) documents connected to the case. Sheikh Ahmad was forced to resign his role on the FIFA Council after the DoJ’s charge sheet listed ‘co-conspirator #2’ as ‘a high-ranking official of FIFA, the Kuwait Football Association (“KFA”), and the Olympic Council of Asia (“OCA”)’. That could only be Sheikh Ahmad.

FIFA’s decision to sanction Lai with a life ban indicates that it accepts he received bribes designed to gain influence over the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA. The DoJ’s Lai charge sheet implicates Sheikh Ahmad and co-conspirator #3, understood to be Husain Al-Musallam, OCA Director General and Vice President of the international swimming federation (FINA), as paying those bribes to Lai.

‘On 27 April 2017, Mr Lai pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud conspiracy and one count of wilful failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts’, reads FIFA’s statement. ‘His guilty plea related, amongst others, to schemes in which he received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to the FIFA presidential elections and to gain control and influence within the AFC and FIFA’.

The DoJ documents (PDF below) alleged that in 2009, ‘co-conspirator #2’ agreed to provide Lai with US$200,000 to hire a manager for Guam’s football team, but the money was paid into a personal account owned by Lai. ‘The defendant Richard Lai never transferred these funds to GFA [Guam Football Association] accounts’, alleges the document. After this, ‘co-conspirator #2 and co-conspirator #3 began using Lai’s assistance in furtherance of their efforts to diminish co-conspirator #1’s power and influence over the AFC and FIFA’, alleges the document. The DoJ argues that the overall aim behind Sheikh Ahmad’s alleged action was to gain control of the AFC.

FIFA’s apparent acceptance of the DoJ evidence in the Richard K. Lai case raises questions as to why the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) cleared Sheikh Ahmad of any wrongdoing at its General Assembly in September – especially as FIFA and IOC investigations have yet to conclude. The OCA’s honorary life President, Wei Jizhong, led an ethics panel that dismissed the “vicious” and “fake and fabricated” allegations against the OCA President, reported InsideTheGames.

The Ethics Board of the IOC has also launched an investigation into Al-Musallam in connection to allegations that he attempted to negotiate a 10% cut of FINA sponsorship deals as commission. Those allegations were denied by Al-Mussallam, who alleged that a recorded conversation had been leaked to the media in order to destabilise his FINA election campaign.

Julio Maglione was re-elected as FINA President earlier this year and, shortly after, FINA’s rules were changed to allow its President to serve three four year terms. It was also alleged that a pledge to offer up to US$4,000 in grants to the 209 FINA national federations for the first edition of World Aquatics Day risked being seen as ‘cash for votes’ ahead of the election. Following his re-election, Maglione was approved as Senior Vice President of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) for the Americas at its September General Assembly. The President of ANOC is Sheikh Ahmad.

Sheikh Ahmad and Al-Musallam are also members of the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity Commission, which provides financial assistance to national Olympic Committees (NOCs) for development projects. Al-Musallam has been personally involved in OCA Olympasia development projects.

Earlier this year, it was alleged that Olympasia Project funds were being misappropriated. There is no suggestion that Sheikh Ahmad or Al-Musallam have been involved in this, but the OCA has yet to respond to these allegations, despite evidence of the alleged fraud being sent to Sheikh Ahmad directly.

In November 2016, ANOC approved a €410,000 loan to its Vice President, Patrick Hickey. The ANOC internet site currently lists Hickey as temporarily self-suspended. The loan was to cover a bond which a Brazilian judge ordered Hickey must pay to return to Ireland for medical treatment, after he was accused of corruption regarding Olympic ticketing and detained.

Hickey’s case was due to be heard in a Rio court on 29 November, however it is understood that proceedings have been suspended until February next year. ‘The decision was unanimously approved by ANOC president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah and all ANOC Vice-Presidents via a postal vote on 20 November 2016’, read an ANOC statement provided to The Guardian. ‘The payment was made as a temporary loan so that Patrick Hickey could meet his bail requirements and return to Ireland where he can receive medical treatment for a heart condition. The terms of the temporary loan make it clear that it must be repaid to ANOC in full. For legal reasons all other terms and conditions surrounding this bail payment will remain confidential.’ 

The Sports Integrity Initiative asked ANOC if the money had been returned in May this year, but has yet to receive a reply. It is understood that the money may never be repaid. This is a matter that may concern the IOC Ethics Commission, since ANOC received US$12 million in funding from the IOC during 2016, as the IOC Annual Report reveals. A copy of ANOC’s 2016 Financial Report, a copy of which is held by The Sports Integrity Initiative, confirms that ANOC received $12 million from the IOC.

Independent Ethics Commission

At its General Assembly in Prague earlier this month, ANOC proposed the creation of an Independent Ethics Commission. It is understood that Constitutional amendments to put such a Commission in place will be put forward next year. ‘This step will add to the effectiveness of ANOC’s already in place robust Ethics Policy’, reads a Report (click here to download) recommending the establishment of the Commission. A Conflicts of Interest policy will also be put in place.

Olympic movement implicated in FIFAGate

To recap: FIFA has banned an official for life for accepting bribes that the US DoJ allege came from senior OCA officials. The OCA has cleared one of those officials despite FIFA and IOC investigations into that official continuing.

The second OCA official is also a senior figure at an international federation, where corruption allegations in relation to an election have been made. One of the senior officials at the OCA also heads ANOC, which appointed the President of the international federation after he won the election.

ANOC has also been accused of loaning money provided by the IOC to its Vice President, and it appears that money may not be returned. The ANOC Vice President has currently suspended himself due to corruption charges. The OCA has yet to respond to historic allegations that Olympasia Project funds were misappropriated.

FIFA’s decision to ban Lai appears to fly in the face of the OCA’s decision to clear its President, Sheikh Ahmad, of all charges. It is understood that the decision was taken by an OCA Ethics Committee, although no decision or statement has been published on the OCA’s internet site. Given the allegations outlined above against ANOC, which Sheikh Ahmad also heads, the IOC is likely to be watching the creation of its Ethics Committee with interest. It will also be interesting to watch how ANOC implements its Conflicts of Interest Policy.

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