KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The sprawling American investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer has reached into Asia and claimed the first guilty plea from a senior official in the new FIFA leadership.
A member of the FIFA Audit and Compliance Committee, Richard Lai of Guam, was suspended by the Asian Football Confederation on Friday after admitting to taking about $1 million in bribes related to elections and buying influence among FIFA voters.
Lai, a United States citizen and president of Guam's soccer federation since 2001, plead guilty in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday.
The AFC executive committee member admitted to two counts of wire fraud conspiracy in connection with multiple schemes to accept and pay bribes to soccer officials.
In a statement Friday, the Malaysia-based Asian soccer body said it "provisionally suspended Richard Lai from football with immediate effect."
The FIFA ethics committee, which typically imposes life bans on officials who plead guilty in Brooklyn, is likely to apply its sanction later Friday.
Neither FIFA nor its independent ethics committee immediately responded to a request for comment.
Lai's case marks a stunning step forward in the American federal investigation, which had indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.
The latest plea reaches deep into Asian soccer for the first time and involves an official who retained his position monitoring FIFA's multi-billion dollar income and spending in the transition from former president Sepp Blatter to his successor Gianni Infantino.
Lai also pleaded guilty to failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties. The plea was entered before U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen.
Bridget M. Rohde, an Acting U.S. Attorney, announced the guilty plea and said it "marks another important step in our ongoing effort to root out corruption in international soccer."
"The defendant abused the trust placed in him as a soccer official in order to line his own pockets. The defendant's breach of trust was particularly significant given his position as a member of the FIFA Audit and Compliance committee, which must play an important and independent role if corruption within FIFA is to be eliminated."
According to the criminal information to which Lai pleaded guilty, he received more than $850,000 in bribes between 2009 and 2014 from a faction of soccer officials in the Asian region in exchange for using his influence as a soccer official. The cash was intended to advance the interests of the faction that bribed him, including by helping officials in that faction identify other officials to offer bribes.
Lai also received $100,000 in bribes in 2011 from an official of the AFC who was then running for the FIFA presidency, in exchange for Lai's vote and support in the then-upcoming FIFA presidential election.
Mohamed bin Hammam, the AFC president who was running against Blatter in that FIFA election, was later banned for life from soccer by FIFA.