NEW YORK – In accusing soccer federation leaders of tarnishing the sport by taking $150 million in bribes and payoffs, U.S. prosecutors laid out a sweeping corruption case that hinges on the testimony of insiders, including some who have agreed to cooperate in plea deals.
Prosecutors announced the racketeering conspiracy and other charges Wednesday against 14 defendants — nine current and former officials with global soccer governing body FIFA, four sports marketing executives and an accused intermediary.
They also revealed four others had pleaded guilty in secret proceedings dating to July 2013. It's believed some or all are cooperating in the investigation.
The fact that some guilty pleas came almost two years ago speaks to how long authorities have been gathering evidence, likely some of it from those defendants, said Alfredo F. Mendez, a former federal prosecutor who now is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer.
A long time between a first round of pleas and their disclosure is "a signal that cooperation is going on," Mendez said.
Prosecutors sealed the guilty pleas so they wouldn't "flag that there was investigation going on," said Timothy Heaphy, another former federal prosecutor and defense attorney. "That happens all the time in organized crime cases, whether white-collar or blue-collar."
Also telling is the extent of the allegations prosecutors have unveiled — the indictment runs 161 pages — indicating they're confident they have voluminous evidence, experts said.
Heaphy said such detail sends a message to defendants: "They know what we did. They have good information. That could be incentive to plead guilty and cooperate."
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the charges at a news conference packed with foreign journalists. The charges were filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, which she ran before becoming a cabinet member.
The indicted soccer officials "were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest and to protect the integrity of the game," Lynch said. "Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves."
With soccer officials gathered in Zurich to elect a new president, seven of the U.S. defendants were arrested there. Six of those arrested were opposing extradition to the U.S., the Swiss justice ministry said, without naming them.
Former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner turned himself over to police in Trinidad, and he was later released on $2.5 million bail. Warner did not enter a plea, but he denied any wrongdoing.
The others had yet to be arrested.
Meanwhile, Warner's two sons, Daryan and Daryll, entered secret guilty pleas in 2013. The indictment points to their possible cooperation by detailing how, in a scheme to fix a vote awarding the 2010 World Cup tournament to South Africa, Warner directed an unnamed co-conspirator — identified only as "a member of Warner's family" — to fly to Paris to "accept a briefcase containing bundles of U.S. currency in $10,000 stacks in a hotel room from a high-ranking South African bid committee official."
"Given the allegations that we've seen just in the papers, there seems little doubt who the payments went to and for what reason," said Andy Spalding, an international criminal law expert at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Prosecutors outlined 12 different schemes dating to 1991, most involving marketing and media rights to various events.
FIFA said it was cooperating with investigators and that it had already taken steps to root out corruption.
While the case has an international scope, prosecutors have noted that one entity at the heart of the case is headquartered in Miami, they've said some illegal transactions passed through U.S. banks, and some defendants are U.S. citizens.
"When you look at all of that, I think the government will argue that they have a reason for involvement in this," Mendez said.
"The Department of Justice is trying to send a message to FIFA: 'If you're not going to police yourself, we're going to police you, if you're doing this kind of business in the United States.'"
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Tony Fraser in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, contributed to this report.