CONCACAF details rebuilding plans after FIFA bribery scandal

GENEVA (AP) Plunged into crisis by a second FIFA bribery scandal in four years, the CONCACAF soccer body wants to pass sweeping new leadership rules to help rebuild.

The North and Central American and Caribbean governing body published anti-corruption proposals Monday after its past two presidents and general secretaries were implicated in an American federal investigation of racketeering in international soccer.

CONCACAF’s president since 2012, Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, and an executive committee colleague Eduardo Li of Costa Rica are fighting extradition to the United States from prison cells in Zurich where they were arrested in May.

Its top administrator, Enrique Sanz, is suspended from all soccer duty by FIFA and CONCACAF after being linked to arranging bribes for Webb from the rights-holding sports marketing agency where he used to work.

”From a crisis standpoint, this is a pretty big crisis,” CONCACAF legal adviser Sam Gandhi told The Associated Press. ”We have to solve our own problems and we need to show we are a leader.”

The reform proposals include: Imposing term limits on CONCACAF presidents and executive committee members; appointing outsiders to the policy-making executive panel; publishing salaries and expenses of top officials.

”The whole world has acknowledged that independent board members are important to avoid conflicts of interest,” Gandhi said of an idea FIFA refused to enact in its own reform process two years ago.

CONCACAF also wants to run background checks on potential commercial partners, hire a compliance officer and run a whistleblower hotline.

The detailed plans for ”systemic organizational change” were published Monday, one day before CONCACAF’s 12-nation Gold Cup tournament kicks off in the United States.

”We are going to be able to put on a great event and going to be able to pay prize money,” Gandhi, a partner with law firm Sidley Austin, said in a telephone interview. ”We have had no restrictions on our operations.”

Still, CONCACAF’s marquee competition was named in a stunning 164-page indictment published in May by the U.S. Department of Justice. It alleged widespread corruption over 24 years in the award of broadcast and hosting rights for international soccer events.

Gold Cup rights through 2021 are held by the Traffic Sports USA Inc agency, whose president Aaron Davidson is one of 14 soccer and marketing officials named in the indictment. The company has made a guilty plea to wire fraud conspiracy.

Webb and Li are also among those 14 indicted in the widening American federal investigation, as was former CONCACAF president Jack Warner, a longtime FIFA vice president, who is resisting extradition from his native Trinidad and Tobago. Two of Warner’s sons already made guilty pleas.

Warner’s former right-hand man at CONCACAF, American Chuck Blazer, also had his guilty plea unsealed in May.

Between them, they ran CONCACAF for more than two decades until Blazer turned whistleblower in 2011 to implicate Warner and then-FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar in a vote-buying plot.

CONCACAF’s reputation was battered and within a year Webb was elected and Sanz hired on a joint pledge to clean house and restore its standing.

Instead, American federal agencies allege that Webb was already seeking and getting million-dollar bribes from Sanz’s former employer Traffic Sports.

”I think that before, there was no process whatsoever,” Gandhi said, when asked how CONCACAF missed the opportunity to reform after the Warner-Blazer era. ”People looked at the people who were saying the right things and relied on that without looking at the process and the structure.”

Monday’s outline reform document was accepted Saturday at a CONCACAF executive meeting after being drafted by Gandhi and an emergency panel formed by the leaders of the Canada, Mexico and U.S. soccer federations.

Detailed changes must be approved at a congress of the full 41-nation CONCACAF membership, likely within a year.

”We and, more importantly, the ExCo (executive committee) realize we need to do the right thing to right the ship otherwise there will not be a confederation,” Gandhi said.

CONCACAF is cooperating with investigators from multiple US agencies, a Swiss federal probe of possible money-laundering and financial mismanagement at FIFA, and by FIFA’s ethics committee.

The U.S.-based law firm Sidley Austin is also leading an internal investigation of CONCACAF’s exposure to fraud and ”self-dealing,” and helping review contracts with Traffic Sports, whose accounts have been frozen.

”We recognize we need to make a decision imminently,” Gandhi said of broadcasting rights for future Gold Cups and the CONCACAF Champions League through 2022.

Though CONCACAF’s current focus is on the Gold Cup ending July 26, it must soon turn to the 2016 Copa America Centenario tournament.

The 16-nation event scheduled in the U.S. is being co-organized with South American confederation CONMEBOL, which marks its 100th birthday next year and arguably is in even deeper turmoil provoked by the bribery scandal.

”At this point it is still up in the air,” Gandhi said.