This week the 18th defendant in the FIFA Corruption Case pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy. Eduardo Li, the former president of Costa Rica’s soccer association, faces up to 60 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in connection with awarding media and marketing contracts for soccer matches. Much of the conduct outlined in the criminal schemes had long been a part of World Cup soccer and is likely deeply entrenched in the culture of international soccer.
During her announcement of the charges against FIFA officials in May of 2015, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch remarked that the defendants, “were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest, and protect the integrity of the game. Instead they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves.” She noted that the Department of Justice investigation spanned over two decades of corrupt conduct.
So often public corruption investigations, especially those that are the first for an industry or entity, seek to criminalize and punish conduct that is deeply entrenched and often part of an entities’ culture or identity. In Pennsylvania, we need only look to the Bonusgate scandal and other recent public corruption investigations as examples. When the probe of bonuses awarded to legislative staff for performing campaign work on state time began, it was often remarked that campaigning on state time has always been done and was part of the culture at the Capital.
While Attorney General Lynch’s investigation may have spanned over two decades, corruption in international soccer is part of its lore and maybe even part of the game. Referees are bought and paid for. Hosting countries purchase the right to the World Cup games. As one author wrote,
Just as fans suspend the norms of behavior in their support of one team other another, so do those inside the game seek to satisfy their audience by suspending the everyday rules and standards that discourage deceitful and corrupt behavior. In this regard, soccer is as much a spectacle to be performed, as it is a sport. In soccer’s habitual chaos, greatness and immortality can be achieved through either guile or integrity. Either way, both will be celebrated in the stands.
For criminal defense practitioners, the question becomes, what part do entrenched cultural norms play in the mounting of an effective defense to corruption charges? When and in what form is it appropriate to allege, “everyone else is doing it,” or “I thought it was part of my job?” While the “everyone else is doing it” defense does not often play well in Court, it may give prosecutors pause pre-indictment. It is unlikely that the FIFA corruption trials will provide much insight into viable defenses. Recently, in preparation for trial, federal prosecutors promised leniency for those who plead guilty. Mr. Li entered his plea just a few weeks later with others likely to follow.
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