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Australian Whistleblower Who Took on FIFA Corruption: Sepp Blatter’s Resignation Long Overdue

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Image Credit: Reuters

The beleaguered head of the international soccer governing body FIFA has resigned over a growing corruption scandal. Sepp Blatter’s announcement follows last week’s indictments of 14 people on corruption charges, including two FIFA vice presidents. The New York Times reported Blatter’s secretary general, Jérôme Valcke, allegedly made $10 million in bank transactions that are central elements of the bribery scandal. U.S. officials have confirmed Blatter is the focus of a criminal investigation, with investigators hopeful those already charged will cooperate. The resignation won’t take effect for another four months due to FIFA rules. We are joined by Bonita Mersiades, the former head of corporate and public affairs with the Football Federation of Australia during Australia’s bid for the 2022 World Cup, which ultimately was awarded to Qatar. Mersiades was let go from the bid team after disagreeing with a policy to influence the vote of FIFA’s Executive Committee members with money for pet projects, and testified during FIFA’s own investigation into corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The beleaguered head of the international soccer governing body FIFA resigned Tuesday, just three days after he won a fifth term amidst a corruption scandal in his top ranks. Sepp Blatter’s move to step down brings an end to his 17 years in office and follows last week’s indictment of 14 people on corruption charges, including two FIFA vice presidents. Earlier today, Interpol put two top former FIFA officials on its “red notice” wanted list at the request of U.S. authorities. On Monday, The New York Times reported Blatter’s secretary general, Jérôme Valcke, allegedly transferred $10 million in 2008 from FIFA to two accounts controlled by another soccer official, Jack Warner. Blatter announced he would resign at a press conference in Zurich.

SEPP BLATTER: [translated] I decided to stand again to be elected because I was convinced it was the best option for our institution. The elections are closed, but the challenges that FIFA is facing have not come to an end. FIFA needs a profound restructuring. Although the members of FIFA have given me a new mandate, have re-elected me president, this mandate does not seem to be supported by everybody in the world of soccer—supporters, clubs, players, those who inspire life in soccer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sepp Blatter’s resignation will not go into effect immediately. FIFA rules call for at least four months’ notice before a meeting of member nations to elect a new president.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, news of FIFA’s corruption comes as no surprise to our next guest, who’s watching this story closely. Bonita Mersiades was head of corporate and public affairs with the Football Federation of Australia during Australia’s bid for the 2022 World Cup, which ultimately was awarded to Qatar. She was let go from the bid team after disagreeing with a policy to influence the vote of FIFA’s Executive Committee members with money for pet projects, and testified during FIFA’s own investigation into corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process. She joins us by Democracy Now! audio stream from Coolum Beach in Australia.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you first respond to Sepp Blatter staying for his election this past week, being elected, and now saying he’s stepping down? And then talk about what it is that you found, what you experienced, and how you were let go.

BONITA MERSIADES: Sure. Hi, Amy. I guess the only way to explain Sepp Blatter is to say that that’s just so typical of Sepp Blatter. He’s not a person who necessarily behaves in the same way that we would be used to with people, for instance, from corporate organizations or the public sector, because he doesn’t necessarily have a good understanding or a good sense of what governance is. That was made clear, I think, last week when Loretta Lynch set out what the charges were against some of the FIFA—

AMY GOODMAN: Bonita, we lost you.

BONITA MERSIADES: —talked about—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

BONITA MERSIADES: Oh, have you got me again now?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we hear you now.

BONITA MERSIADES: OK. I’m not sure where I was up to, but I was talking about how Mr. Blatter doesn’t have a very good understanding of governance at all, and that was evident in the comments that were made by Loretta Lynch last week, in which she talked about the issues that FIFA faced being longstanding and over decades, not just in recent years. So, it’s hardly surprising that Mr. Blatter would say last Friday that he was the man to lead us all out of all of this, and then four days later he says, “Oh, I am going to resign because I don’t have your confidence.” But at the same time, he’s not going to resign straightaway. It could be four months. It even could be as long as 10 months. And he’s actually going to have—he and his close associates set out a program for reform, a program for reform of which he has been spectacularly unable to implement over 34 years in either the top job or the second top job. So that’s the first part of your question.

The second part relates to what I saw. It was more about the way FIFA went about doing its business, and it’s exactly how—as Loretta Lynch described it. And that is that decisions were made on the basis of what went on in back rooms. There were deals. There were counter-deals. There were double deals. There was subterranean behavior. And there was no transparency whatsoever. If the bids had been considered on their merits and on the basis of objective criteria, it is unlikely that Qatar and Russia would have ended up winning 2022 and 2018. But, in fact, we don’t really know what went on and how those decisions were made. And so, we’ve got the outcome that we did in relation to those bids. And while these issues around FIFA are longstanding and have been going on for decades, there’s no better example than those two decisions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the potential for real reform, not just a shuffling of the people at the top? For instance, this Prince Ali, who is a potential replacement as head of FIFA, do you think he augurs any real possibility for real reform?

BONITA MERSIADES: Look, I think almost anyone, but almost, would—

AMY GOODMAN: We just heard—we just lost all of what you were saying, but “almost anyone.”

BONITA MERSIADES: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, repeat what you’re saying.

BONITA MERSIADES: —one would be an improvement on who has been there for the past 34 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Bonita Mersiades, can you talk about what happened to you?

BONITA MERSIADES: Well, what happened to me was, I was working as part of the bid team, and then I—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to try to fix your audio. Meanwhile, we’re going to go to Michael Kohn, who’s head of the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, D.C. Michael, you usually deal with people who are, oh, you know, whistleblowers on the FBI or the CIA or police, author of Whistleblower Law: A Guide to Legal Protections for Corporate Employees. Why is the FIFA story, internationally, so relevant to what’s happening in this country today?

MICHAEL KOHN: Well, thank you. International whistleblowing is critical right now, and the United States’ laws are the gold standard. We have the best whistleblower laws that protect international—that have international reach. Our laws also provide recovery for whistleblowers, which makes them very unusual, and strict anonymity. You can go with allegations of fraud and corruption under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, provide the information to the U.S. government officials and have strict confidentiality, where no one will ever know that you were the source of the information. Additionally, our laws provide a recovery of—part of whatever is recovered of the fraud can be paid to the whistleblower as a reward. This is a state-of-the-art whistleblower protection program that no other country has. And our laws are long-reaching. Foreign nationals are as free to file these claims as anyone else. And tens of millions of dollars have already been paid out to foreign nationals to address corruption occurring around the world. So this is the state-of-the-art whistleblower protection available, and it’s no surprise that you see the Justice Department of the United States leading the charge against this type of massive fraud. As whistleblowers around the world come forward, the information will end up being filtered into the appropriate U.S. investigative agencies, and corrective action can occur.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Michael Kohn, doesn’t that also raise certain concerns about the spreading of the U.S. legal system worldwide, in this sense, in terms of being able to prosecute crimes that may not necessarily have been committed in the United States itself?

MICHAEL KOHN: Not at all. These are crimes—these are international crimes. And in order to get jurisdiction, in some form, the tentacle of the criminal conduct has to have occurred or touched the United States. So, this is—in order to bring a fair playing field around the world to ensure that bribes are not the driving force behind large contracts, it’s the only regime that’s out there. It’s the state of the art. What should be happening is all the other countries should be developing similar type of laws. But what you have is, in a lot of these jurisdictions, there just isn’t the opportunity to create such forceful, powerful laws, because the institutions—you have internal corruptions within certain government institutions, that you’re afraid if you bring the information forward, your identity will be revealed, and your life could be in danger. That won’t happen with the United States’ program. And that’s why it’s really the guiding light. And hopefully—I think the goal of these programs is to get the entire world to enact similar legislation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why do you think it’s taken so long in the case of FIFA, for example? Because there have been all kinds of investigations, some actually started by FIFA itself that went nowhere, and yet it’s been wide—it’s been known for years that there’s some level of deep corruption in this international body.

MICHAEL KOHN: Well, the internal investigation by FIFA, I think, were aimed at hiding the truth. The individual who conducted the last investigation renounced FIFA’s summary of his report. I mean, that’s pretty clear that the intent is to cover up. So, if you want to have true whistleblower protection and you want to be able to get to the truth as quickly as possible, you’re going to really have to work through the U.S. legal system—the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Dodd-Frank Act, our tax laws. These laws provide meaningful relief. They provide punitive measures that are in line with what is necessary to have meaningful change around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I think we have Bonita Mersiades simply on the phone from Australia, because we really want to hear exactly what happened to you when you tried to blow the whistle on FIFA.

BONITA MERSIADES: Hi. Well, look, a couple of things, Amy. I mean, one, I was in my job, and I raised my concerns about the reputational risks that Australia ran with its bid, with some of the practices that I could see. And that became very uncomfortable for my employers. And in the end, they decided that I was expendable and that I should go. And then, you know, last—

AMY GOODMAN: And you were talking—you were concerned about the Australian Football Federation—the Football Federation of Australia giving money to FIFA in the bid?

BONITA MERSIADES: It’s not so much that. It is about the whole environment around the bidding process. It was clear that, as I think I may have touched on earlier, decisions weren’t made in any sort of transparent manner. It was clear that decisions were going to be made behind closed doors. And so, therefore, the bidding process was never going to be considered on their merits, whether it was Australia’s merits, the U.S.’s merits or whoever. So that was my concern. And it was some of the favors that we were doing for some of those FIFA executives—for example, Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam—which were of concern to me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were those favors?

BONITA MERSIADES: Well, one good example is one whereby, for instance, Australia decided to fund the upgrade of a stadium in Trinidad and Tobago. Now, that might be a worthwhile project in and of its own right, but, you know, the question has to be raised: Did we think there was a vote attached to it? You know, everyone can answer that for themselves, I guess, but in light of what we now know about Jack Warner, you are led to perhaps a conclusion. But the key thing is that the half a million dollars that was given to upgrade that stadium or to upgrade the Centre of Excellence ended up in the personal bank account of Mr. Warner, according to an expert committee of inquiry into CONCACAF finances. So, it’s not saying that that’s where the money was given, but it’s certainly where the money was received. And that’s just a small example of the types of things which Loretta Lynch was talking about last week, which have gone on in the large scale with FIFA.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to happen now, as we wrap up?

BONITA MERSIADES: I think the only thing that can happen with FIFA, the only way we can have any confidence in it, going forward, is to get a complete clean broom through it. Having Sepp Blatter in charge for another four months or 10 months or whatever it is, designing a reform program after he’s been spectacularly unable to do so for 34 years, is just not going to work. So, New FIFA Now, which is a group I’m involved with, would like to see an eminent person come in and completely overhaul the organization, everything about it, and basically start again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to wrap up here. We want to thank you very much, Bonita Mersiades, for joining us, head of corporate and public affairs with the Football Federation of Australia during Australia’s bid for the 2012 [sic] World Cup, ultimately awarded to Qatar—2022 World Cup. She was let go from the bid team after disagreeing with a policy to influence the vote of FIFA’s Executive Committee members with money for pet projects, and testified in FIFA’s own investigation into itself, into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process. And thanks also to Michael Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, co-founder of one of America’s leading whistleblower law firms. Thanks so much.

This is Democracy Now! Now we go down to Denton, Texas. We’re talking fracking. Stay with us.

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