FIFA prosecutor Garcia kept 'busier than expected'
FIFA prosecutor Michael Garcia has been kept busier than he expected trying to clean up world soccer - and his workload will probably increase after a whistleblower hotline opens this month.
Garcia told The Associated Press in an interview that FIFA investigations take "more of my time than I originally anticipated'' since his appointment last July.
"I'm a busy man. It's five months in and I think where we are is a very good place,'' said Garcia, who completed his first case last month. FIFA President Sepp Blatter's former election rival, Mohamed bin Hammam, was banned for life over financial mismanagement at the Asian Football Confederation.
"Outside of FIFA, I'm happy with the fact that people more and more seem to be getting the sense that this is a place where at least you can raise something, you'll get a hearing, you'll be taken seriously,'' he said from a Zurich hotel after attending the FIFA player of the year ceremony.
After the hotline is launched, Garcia may need to call on more resources from the New York law firm of Kirkland & Ellis where he is a partner.
"I am going to have access directly to that data and there has been training for my folks to access that,'' he said.
The former U.S. attorney, who prosecuted financial crimes on Wall Street, pledged last July to study all allegations from any source. He has powers granted under a FIFA Code of Ethics that was strengthened as part of Blatter's promise to improve the governing body's tattered image.
The old ethics system - seemingly disregarded by some FIFA ruling board members - could not cope with waves of bribery and corruption allegations linked to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting votes, then Blatter's election contest with Bin Hammam.
FIFA's fiercest critics wanted Garcia, a former Interpol vice president and soccer outsider, to shake up FIFA's inner circle and scrutinize Qatar's successful 2022 bid.
"I have applied that open-door policy consistently from Day 1 and many people have taken advantage of it, both on the public side and inside football,'' he said. "You can really go where the cases take you.''
Though the code prevents him from discussing ongoing work, Garcia said he has match-fixing allegations "on the radar screen,'' and suggested that FIFA's continental confederations - which closely guard their autonomy and privileges - could be in his sights.
Still, Garcia received flak that, by taking over the Asian body's bin Hammam probe, his independence was compromised by serving the FIFA president's vested interests. Garcia's case report detailing "repeated'' financial conflicts of interest prompted bin Hammam to resign from soccer and triggered a life ban.
"That case speaks for itself. There is public record information on how it was resolved,'' Garcia said. "That investigation was done ... completely consistently with what I consider my independent jurisdiction and decision-making authority. There was never an issue to me any other way.''
The American lawyer described it as "unfortunate'' if one high-profile case made people think "nothing else is going on'' in his FIFA work.
Building public trust in the integrity of FIFA's judicial process is a theme stressed by Garcia, who praised his "top-notch'' colleagues, also appointed by FIFA to ensure independent oversight: ethics court judge Joachim Eckert of Germany and compliance panel chairman Domenico Scala of Switzerland.
"I think if you look at the future of this process and Scala's work, that is the good news,'' Garcia said. "To me, instilling confidence in the new code, and the new process for enforcing the code, is more important than any case that either had been done, or will be done.''
Here, Garcia sees comparisons in working with "Wall Street'' and "FIFA'' - catch-all terms for what frustrates many people about perceived elite interests in the economy or soccer.
"I approach those two the same way: Are there bad actors? What are they doing? And how do you stop that and send a message?'' he said.
Garcia recalled that, while his past decisions might be criticized by The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, commentators respected the integrity of his office.
"We don't have that here. This is a very new enterprise'' for FIFA, explained Garcia, who will surely be judged a success as much by securing convictions and sanctions as for helping create an improved system to govern soccer.
After bin Hammam, two more continental presidents could have reason to fear Garcia's findings in a World Cup kickbacks case from the 1990s that Blatter steered his way.
South American leader Nicolas Leoz was identified in Swiss court papers for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from now-defunct marketing agency ISL, and Issa Hayatou of Africa was already reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee for receiving 100,000 French francs (then $20,000) in cash from ISL.
Further action could follow a financial audit being completed by the New York-based CONCACAF body, governing soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The same exercise in Asia showed how bin Hammam used AFC accounts and made deals with broadcasting partners worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some CONCACAF member countries demanded last May that Chuck Blazer, the most senior American official at FIFA, be investigated over his commissions from commercial deals that were OK'd by disgraced former FIFA vice president Jack Warner.
Garcia acknowledged that the ethics code gives him power to "reach down into confederation levels and take cases. I have used that and I intend to if I think it's necessary. Basically, that is all I can say.''
Amid all the negative lines of inquiry, Garcia points to one positive in the world of soccer.
"Now you can turn on the TV (in the U.S.) and see soccer matches, which when I was growing up was unheard of. Now I pay more attention to and I try to learn more about it,'' he said. "Yes, we're looking at this docket of cases where people may have behaved badly. But there's a beauty to the game.''