FIFA ‘Farce’ – Infantino Meeting His Match?

by | Aug 21, 2020

That Fifa president Gianni Infantino faces legal scrutiny over certain of his actions in office isn’t exactly news. The previous two Fifa presidents were corrupt as f**k for decades without proper sanction. Thus, cynical shoulder-shrugging is the commonest reaction to such things.

The issue imperiling Infantino seems innocuous. Three meetings with Switzerland’s attorney-general Michael Lauber in March/April 2016 and June 2017 (Fifa is headquartered in Switzerland). Indeed, descriptions of the legal importance being attached to these meetings as a “farce” and “absurd” have superficial merit.

However, the meetings forced Lauber’s resignation, the opening of a Swiss criminal investigation into their content, and (drum roll) criminal proceedings against Infantino, after Swiss investigations found “indications of criminal conduct” relating to “abuse of public office, breach of official secrecy, assisting offenders and incitement to these acts” with consideration of “additional criminal acts” remaining “reserved.” Wooh.

The meetings were undocumented and unmentioned by Infantino or Lauber, despite the by definition importance of any liaison between two such top-ranking officials. The explanations for them haven’t even addressed their secrecy, or those criminal conduct indications. Everyone at them has, to varying extents, tried to cover them up. And their very existence potentially explains some of the issues with Fifa-corruption probes since 2015.

The meetings were revealed, in November 2018, by “Football Leaks,” the website full of leaked documents on sports skullduggeries (the recent change in status of the man ‘behind’ FL, Portuguese hacker/whistleblower Rui Pinto, from house arrestee to protected witness, may or may not be coincidental). But the story originated in the world-famous rounding-up of many of Fifa’s less-than-great-and-good in Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich in May 2015.

Lauber was the leading light of the Swiss ‘end’ of the investigations into alleged Fifa corruption which the Zurich raids rammed into public consciousness. On 10th March 2015, his office had “opened criminal proceedings against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement. and money-laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 & 2022 World Cup finals hosting rights.” However, the rest of the 700-word announcement of this operation was more defensive.

“The procedure is huge and complex on many levels,” Lauber stressed. Swiss investigations would be “executed independently” from US operations. He insisted that “the world of football needs to be patient. By its nature, this investigation will take more than the legendary 90 minutes.” And, indeed, the “Swiss probe” was soon “running into obstacles.”

These references now haunt Lauber. The US brought many Fifa officials to justice in late 2017, about which a book has since been written, published and best-sold globally (Ken Bensinger’s excellent, if unimaginatively-titled, “Red Card”). But his Fifa-corruption probes have foundered on a variety of rocks, the latest the collapse in April of a tax fraud trial relating to 2006 World Cup hosting rights, which fell to a “five-year statute of limitations,” the legalese for “took too long.” And an increasing number of legally relevant people have linked these failings to the Lauber/Infantino conflabs.

On 2nd November 2018, German news magazine Der Spiegel revealed Football Leaks’ Infantino leaks. “How Fifa’s President Failed To Clean Up Football,” they wrote, adding: “When Infantino took the helm at Fifa, he promised to rescue (it) from the crisis in which it found itself. Yet thousands of internal memos suggest he is just the latest in a line of despots bending the global organization to their will.”

The article referenced Rinaldo Arnold, a close Infantino friend, both hailing from Switzerland’s Upper Valais region. Arnold was president of the Swiss sixth-tier football team for which Infantino “often came on as a substitute and often got substituted.” However, FL alleged that in his ‘other’ role as Valais public prosecutor, Arnold facilitated two of THE Lauber meetings and subsequently received a number of potentially Infantino-related invitations.

On 6th November, the Valais Attorney-General’s office announced that it had “decided to entrust a special prosecutor with the task of establishing precisely the facts” of Arnold’s relationship with Infantino “and determining whether or not they would be subject to criminal law,” given media reports that Lauber’s office was then “leading 25 separate investigations” of suspected Fifa-linked corruption.

Infantino donned his sarky boots in response, asking if it was “forbidden in Switzerland to have friends.” And in April 2019, the special prosecutor, Damian K. Graf, said Arnold wasn’t forbidden, having “ruled out any suspicions” of him “accepting bribes” or committing the intriguing crime of “passive corruption.” But Graf focused more on tax evasion, of which he also cleared Arnold, than meeting facilitation. And Swiss legal focus soon (suspiciously soon, perhaps) re-turned to THE meetings.

Media reports chronologically-linked Lauber/Infantino I and II with Infantino’s April 2016 appearance in the “Panama Papers” mass document leak. This leak revealed that he signed a Champions League TV deal with Cross Trading, a company owned by US Fifa indictees, Argentine father-and-son Hugo and Mariano Jinkis. Infantino was then Uefa general secretary. So Lauber’s office searched Infantino’s old Uefa office.

Nothing publicly emerged from this. But Arnold’s probe was barely closed when another probe opened. This was conducted by the memorably-acronymed AB-BA, the Swiss Attorney-General’s Office supervisory authority, after Swiss media reports of a THIRD Lauber/Infantino liaison, on 16th June 2017 at Swiss capital Bern’s Schweizerhof hotel. AB-BA president Hanspeter Uster said that “when we asked (Lauber) in November if there had been any further meetings. He replied ‘no’.” Ooops.

Cynicism abounded. “When is a meeting not a meeting? Simple. When no-one remembers it,” wrote mock-bemused veteran journalist Keir Radnedge, as Lauber, Infantino and two other purported attendees, Lauber’s spokesman Andre Marty and Arnold (again), denied all recollection of being attendees.

A furious Lauber called the probe “a full-frontal assault on my person” and “an infringement on the independence” of his office. While a Fifa spokesman said: “The fact that the Fifa president met the general prosecutor in open circumstances and in full transparency to discuss these matters is simply an illustration of Fifa’s willingness to cooperate and to assist the (OAG) with its work.”

But circumstances had not been “open.” Transparency had not been “full.” The AB-BA said that “the mere fact that two meetings took place” was “not problematic,” but they should have been formalised and documented. Then, in June, Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court ruled that the third meeting “gave the appearance of bias and collusion” and that its undocumented nature violated Swiss federal law. Lauber was thus ordered to recuse himself from all Fifa corruption investigation.

Lauber appealed and was even reappointed Attorney-General last September. But in March 2020, the AB-BA concluded its probe, which in turn concluded that Lauber had committed “breaches of duty of loyalty on the basis of false information provided concerning two meetings on 8 July 2015 and 16 June 2017 as well as obstructing the (AB-BA’s) investigations and showing “disloyal conduct towards it.” Lauber’s salary was cut by 8% for a year, reduced last month to 5% on appeal to the Federal Administrative Court (FAC).

The veracity of the 2015 meeting, with Marty and Arnold (who sound like a music hall act), was not questioned, as Infantino’s Fifa presidential candidacy was “not yet on the cards.” But the FAC slammed Lauber’s statements on the 2017 meeting. And it noted that no-one at the meeting could remember it, adding, with what may be my favourite line of all-time for a long time: “Such a gap in memory among several participants is to be regarded as absurd according to general experience of life.”

Thus it concluded “that (Lauber) intentionally made a false statement to the (AB-BA) on 12 November 2018 and knowingly concealed the third meeting with…Infantino.” This confirmed the original ruling that Lauber “deliberately and knowingly did not tell the truth about” Lauber/Infantino III, a “serious breach of Lauber’s official duty and duty of loyalty” to his office. But why the meeting was “knowingly concealed” remained unaddressed.

On 26th April, Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve (TdG) offered a possible subject of Lauber/Infantino I, quoting an e-mail from Infantino to Arnold, “expressing concern” about the probe into the above-mentioned Cross Trading deal and asking Arnold to facilitate a meeting with Lauber so that he could “try to explain that it is in my interests that everything should be cleared up as soon as possible, that it be clearly stated that I have nothing to do with this matter.” TdG also called Lauber/Infantino II, which it dated 22nd April 2016, a “mystery.”

Fifa’s combative response wasn’t over-helpful. They were responding to Uefa business which, by definition, was none of their business. They parroted a familiar line on ‘Football Leaks’ leaks, calling the email “obviously obtained by hacking, which is an illegal and criminal act,” thereby confirming its veracity, the silly sods. The email quotes were “completely out of context with the sole objective of misleading the reader” and it “never said (Infantino) wanted to clear his name.”

However, TdG said they had documentary confirmation that Infantino met Lauber to “get rid of an investigation that threatened him personally.” From July-to-September 2016, Swiss prosecutors and Fifa lawyers shared “more than 20” phone calls to “apparently help Fifa” as a victim in corruption cases, which “seems incompatible with the OAG’s duty of impartiality.” And, BTW, the investigation was closed in November 2017 “after a third informal meeting” between Lauber and Infantino.

The World Cup tax fraud trial collapse brought calls for Lauber’s resignation. The Swiss parliament’s Judicial Committee also wanted a word, about the AB-BA ruling. Meanwhile, on 14th May, a criminal complaint was filed, anonymously, with prosecutors in Bern…against Infantino, in connection with the Lauber/Infantino meeting there. This accused Infantino of “trying to induce Lauber to commit a crime that would compromise criminal investigations.”

Again, Fifa responded, despite not being involved. “Meeting prosecutors is standard procedure not a crime. Making an complaint against someone for (that) is a farce. Those who fear being brought to justice can make as many anonymous complaints as they want. This will not deter Fifa and the Fifa President from cooperating with prosecutors. The sole aim of such meetings is to assist the authorities in their investigation of criminal wrong-doing which has adversely affected Fifa.” But if so, it re-begged the question, why were they “knowingly concealed.”

Some observers ‘knew.’ Former Fifa governance adviser, Professor Mark Pieth, was quoted by Private Eye magazine, noting that while “a lot of Fifa investigations might look impressive, they have yet to result in a single conviction.” The Eye added that football was “not Lauber’s only blind spot,” noting that “privately, several Lauber colleagues have bemoaned his lack of vigour in pursuing money-laundering cases involving the larger Swiss banks.”

It concluded that “were the Swiss now to encourage Lauber to walk, Fifa on its own turf may find itself dealing with an altogether tougher agency.” And on 21st May, the parliamentary Judicial Committee voted 13-4 to launch impeachment proceedings against Lauber after questioning him on his role in Fifa corruption cases. Meanwhile, more criminal complaints were filed against Lauber and Arnold, in connection to the Infantino dalliances, leading Swiss MPs to call for another special prosecutor to examine the increasing complaints pile.

This finally got Infantino speaking out in late June. He barely departed from what Fifa had said for him. Meeting “the chief prosecutor of Switzerland” was “perfectly legitimate and perfectly legal. It’s no violation of anything. On the contrary, it’s part of the fiduciary duties of the Fifa president.” And his prior silence was “because the whole thing is absurd.” But he was bothered by “the wording about secret meetings.” Which was…absurd. “There is nothing secret in meeting a prosecutor in a civilised country,” he noted. But these meetings were called secret because they were kept secret.”

Infantino’s intervention put no obvious brake on his by now inexorable slide towards criminal investigation. On 3rd July, (very) senior Swiss prosecutor Dr Stefan Keller was named by the AB-BA as the called-for special prosecutor, who they said had already begun examining what were now four criminal complaints against Infantino, Lauber and, reportedly, “other people.” And on 28th July, after his appeal against his sanction by the AB-BA largely failed, Lauber announced his resignation, to take effect on 31st August.

On 30th July, Keller applied to parliament for “authority to conduct criminal proceedings” against Lauber, whose attorney-generalship gave him immunity from prosecution…until 31st August. And Keller began “criminal proceedings against” Infantino and Arnold. A media release said that Keller’s “original task was to examine” the afore-mentioned “four requests for criminal proceedings,” since when there had been “further requests.” And after his “examination of two of them, he concluded that, “in connection with the meetings…there are indications of criminal conduct.”

Fifa again responded, despite there being no proceedings of any kind against them, although Infantino was quoted extensively. Apart from much rehashing of earlier responses, they and Infantino went big on “co-operation” with relevant authorities and the “judicial process.” Arnold chipped in separately, calling the proceedings “actually a logical step to clarify the facts” and, incorrectly, thinking it relevant that “a case against me was closed last year.” But about the issues of “abuse of public office, breach of official secrecy, assisting offenders and incitement to these acts”? Nothing.

On 3rd August, Fifa Deputy General Secretary Alastair Ball, an old Uefa colleague of Infantino, showed combative but coherent disdain for the situation. The themes were familiar, though. There was “no criminal conduct of any kind…unless meeting the attorney general has somehow become a crime in Switzerland, which I rather doubt.” Ho-ho. Bell then claimed: “We have no idea what (Infantino) has done wrong or what could remotely be described as criminal conduct. All we have are anonymous complaints. Maybe the people who made those complaints would like to see (Infantino) fall.”

And the explanation-of-sorts for Infantino’s conduct had familiar flaws. “The president was in China, he comes back to Zurich, meets (Lauber), and the following day he goes to Russia,” Bell contextualised. “He gets asked about the meeting two years later and says he doesn’t remember the details. Is not remembering the details of a meeting a crime?” Well…no. But Infantino is under investigation for non-disclosure of the meeting, not forgetting the agenda.

Bell continued: “You see the most senior law officer in the country to offer co-operation for the purposes of criminal investigation and you end up being the subject of a criminal investigation yourself. What sort of message does this send out?” Probably that if “you see the most senior law officer in the country” for such purposes, it should be disclosed and documented.

And Bell called it “almost preposterous to suggest that if someone doesn’t remember the details of a meeting, something criminal should have been discussed.” Which is why no-one has suggested it. The suggestion is that something criminal being discussed was an entirely plausible reason to “knowingly conceal” its very existence.

Last week, Infantino and Fifa General Secretary Fatma Samoura tried galvanising support among global national football associations, using the same arguments…Infantino again using Fifa resources to fight a personal battle, almost as if Fifa is his personal fiefdom. Thus it was barely news that Fifa’s Ethics Committee Investigatory Chamber chair Maria Claudia Rojas (appointed in May 2017 by *checks notes* G. Infantino) isn’t even feigning interest. She announced this week that she “has” (present tense) “initiated a preliminary investigation.” But within about 261 words, she’d finished it.

She had “duly scrutinised all the material” which directed Keller to “indications of criminal conduct” and “decided to close the case due to the evident lack of a prima facie case regarding any alleged breach of the Fifa Code of Ethics.” And she insisted that “no aspect of the conduct analysed constitutes a violation of Fifa regulations, some do not even fall within the provisions of the Fifa Code of Ethics, or justify…any kind of measure, including provisional suspension.”

Yet DGS Bell insisted, two weeks earlier, that “no criminal conduct of any kind has been communicated to Fifa.” So, Rojas was able to fully investigate and dismiss the case in under half the time it took Keller to establish that there was a case to START investigating. Unless “indications of criminal conduct” do NOT breach or violate Fifa’s ethics… Which…well…

Swiss justice deserve scrutiny. Swiss attorney-generals are political appointees, which sits uneasily with their supposed independence. And Lauber was, remember, re-appointed during all this, a bizarre decision which has aged badly. But Infantino is a lawyer. He should know the implications of important meetings between holders of high office being undocumented and left for Football Leaks, of all entities, to reveal, 17-to-32 months later. The idea that he has no case, or even questions, to answer is…well…almost preposterous.

Still, in the “general experience of life,” Fifa presidents can act preposterously, absurdly, farcically unethically, you name it, with impunity. Infantino may yet be no different.