When authorities in the United States indicted CONCACAF president and Cayman native Jeffrey Webb, the Cayman Islands found itself part of the global narrative of football corruption and overreach.
The country was caught not as a setting for the unfolding drama but as a character itself in a network of alleged bribes, kickbacks and money laundering.
Cayman and her reputation, writ in Hollywood but not out of the blue, plays a bit part in the story, told through indictments, guilty pleas and football ethics reports.
The connections between the Cayman Islands and allegations of football skullduggery predate by 18 years the day when Jeffrey Webb took the helm at the regional football association CONCACAF. Webb came in promising reform after his predecessor Jack Warner and longtime CONCACAF General Secretary Charles “Chuck” Blazer left amid allegations of corruption at the end of 2011.
A lot of the alleged ill-gotten gains, especially from Blazer, passed through bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, dating back at least to 1994, according to Blazer’s secret 2013 guilty plea with U.S. prosecutors and an investigation by CONCACAF’s ethics committee released in 2013.
Blazer’s public profile struck an almost-cliché character, a large, rotund man with curly grey hair and a bushy beard. He had two apartments in Trump Towers, a swanky New York City address, one where he worked and another, reportedly, for what one source for the New York Daily News called his “unruly cats.”
The total rent bill, according to the newspaper, was $24,000 a month – but only $6,000 for the cats. In declining health and facing the ethics committee, Blazer, now 70, made a deal with the FBI and pleaded guilty to 10 counts of racketeering, money laundering and tax evasion.
Blazer’s Cayman dealings
Blazer and Warner, and several unnamed co-conspirators, allegedly ran several complicated schemes, including selling the media rights to CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments on bribes and kickbacks, and taking bribes in exchange for voting on where to hold World Cup tournaments.
Even the way CONCACAF employed Blazer raised eyebrows by U.S. tax authorities and the confederation’s own accountants. Blazer didn’t, on paper, work for CONCACAF. He worked for Sportvertising (Cayman) Inc. which, in turn, the confederation hired to supply its general secretary, essentially the head of operations for CONCACAF. Blazer worked under several forms of this type of agreement for much of his 20 years at the organization, first with a New York-based company of the same name and then, in 1994, the company incorporated in the Cayman Islands.
U.S. authorities made the charges against Blazer and his guilty plea public on the day Swiss authorities swept into a Zurich hotel in an early-morning raid and arrested seven FIFA officials. Blazer admitted to using his Sportvertising account at Barclays Bank (Cayman) PLC, the charges read, “to disguise the source and nature of the funds.”
Court documents from the U.S. describe one transaction from March 1999: “Wire transfer of $200,000 from an account in the name of Company B, a Uruguayan company, the identity of which is known to the United States Attorney, with ties to Company A, at a bank in Montevideo, Uruguay to a Barclays Bank PLC correspondent account in New York, New York, for credit to Blazer’s Sportvertising account … at Barclays Bank PLC in the Cayman Islands.”
Blazer admitted to moving hundreds of thousands of dollars through similar paths, payments for bribes and kickbacks from selling the media rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments to a Brazilian company, Traffic International and its U.S. subsidiary.
One such wire transfer, $600,000 in 2003, raised suspicion at FirstCaribbean International (Cayman) Ltd., which had taken over the Barclays account in a merger. U.S. court records show FirstCaribbean sent Blazer a letter and required him to document the source of the funds. Blazer, working with unnamed co-conspirators, created a backdated consulting agreement with a Panamanian company to explain the large deposit.
Later, in November 2011, according to the CONCACAF investigation, “Blazer appears to have had some concern regarding whether that transfer would be completed; he replied “[y]ippee” to a confirmation email from Sportvertising Cayman’s bank.” That payment was for $1.4 million, noted as “payment of Gold Cup commission.” A month later CONCACAF demanded the money back, but it’s unclear if Blazer ever returned it.
Blazer also had an account at FirstCaribbean in the Bahamas, which U.S. and CONCACAF authorities say was used to hide part of a $10 million bribe to give the 2010 World Cup to South Africa. South Africa denies the allegation and nobody from the South African Football Association is named in the indictments.
FirstCaribbean CEO Rik Parkhill, speaking during a press conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica in mid-June, said the bank is conducting an internal review on how it may have been involved in the FIFA scandal. Local media quoted Mr. Parkhill: “Certainly we’re concerned when any financial institution is linked to FIFA or any other organization where there are allegations of misconduct. But we are doing a thorough review.”
He told the media, assembled at CIBC First Caribbean Infrastructure Conference, that U.S. investigators had not contacted the bank to help in the investigation.
The internal CONCACAF investigation found that Blazer received at least $11 million in commissions and $3.5 million in fees outside of his employment contracts up to 1998. After that, the Integrity Committee report states, “Blazer accrued an additional $6 million in commissions.” The commissions and fees, according to CONCACAF tax returns in the U.S. came from Sportvertising’s agreement with the organization, essentially between Blazer and Warner, giving the Cayman company a percentage of all broadcast and sponsorship revenues.
From the world stage to a locked courtroom
A little after 10 a.m. on November 25, 2013, United States District Judge Raymond Dearie addressed an almost-empty courtroom at the federal courthouse in the heart of Brooklyn, New York. To his right was U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, joined by three assistant federal prosecutors. On the left sat four attorneys from noted corporate law firm Friedman Kaplan Seitler & Adelman. A court reporter, a security officer and a couple of other staff rounded out the room.
“Somewhat to my surprise but perhaps the situation will be corrected momentarily, we are in an empty courtroom although a very public courtroom,” the judge said as the proceedings began. “Monday morning at 10 after 10 you would think we are in the middle of the night.”
A transcript from that day, recently unsealed by the judge, records verbatim what happened over the next hour in that courtroom.
“Both the nature of the investigation, the identify of the defendant himself, and the surrounding circumstances given the breadth of the investigation make it clear to me that any public release of information at this time would, as I say, irreparably damage that investigation, and the effectiveness of any prosecution thereafter to follow,” he said, before ordering the courtroom locked and Charles Blazer, sitting in a wheelchair, entered the courtroom.
Suffering from Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease and under radiation therapy for colon cancer at the time, Blazer told the judge that, despite his health problems, he was “holding up reasonably well.”
After some back and forth, the court clerk put a 19-page document in front of Blazer. “Would you agree that this is an important 19 pages in your life right now?” the judge asked. “Extremely so,” Blazer said. With those pages, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts, including money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion.
From there, Blazer had agreed to help federal authorities in their investigation into Webb and other FIFA officials. And then he began to read aloud, on the record, an allocution, admitting his roles in taking bribes and kickbacks, and hiding the money from U.S. tax authorities.
“Beginning in or about 1993 and continuing through the early 2000s, I and others agreed to accept bribes and kickbacks in conjunction with the broadcast and other rights to the 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2003 Gold Cups. Beginning in or around 2004 and continuing through 2011, I and others on the FIFA executive committee agreed to accept bribes in conjunction with the selection of South Africa as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup,” Blazer told the court, recorded in a transcript.
With that, Blazer had pleaded guilty and made a formal agreement with the prosecutor who would bring charges against Webb, Warner and others about 19 months later.
There were other guilty pleas, done in the same silence with locked courtrooms, over the next year and a half. And then, on May 27, Swiss authorities raided a hotel in the early morning, leading out some of FIFA’s top officials to face racketeering and corruption charges in the U.S.