As if it were not improbable enough that the big international soccer investigation originates from a borough of baseball and basketball, a transcript of the secret guilty plea by the chief informant shows that the judge started the case unsure how to say “FIFA.”
“I don’t know how to pronounce it, ‘FIFA,’” Brooklyn federal Judge Raymond Dearie said during the closed-door plea by Chuck Blazer in November 2013.
The transcript unsealed on Wednesday shows the judge used another four letters for FIFA as described in a criminal information sheet outlining the charges against Blazer.
“A RICO enterprise,” Dearie said. “RICO is an acronym for, and don’t overreact to this as I am sure most people do, Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization.”
Dearie added, “I will spare you the historical note.”
Anyone familiar with the history knows that the RICO law was passed in 1970 as part of the Organized Crime Control Act. The immediate purpose was to combat the Mafia, and the many RICO targets in Brooklyn federal court included the Gotti brothers of the Gambino crime family.
“Who’s this Mr. Rico anyway?” Gene Gotti asked as he was led off to prison.
Now RICO would be meeting FIFA, beginning with Blazer, one-time soccer dad who became a member of the FIFA executive committee and general secretary of its North American and Caribbean affiliate, CONACAF.
“Tell me what your understanding of what a conspiracy is,” Dearie said.
“An activity conducted by a group of people for a specific aim and objective,” Blazer said.
“That is a B-plus,” Dearie said. “It is a specific criminal aim or objective. OK?”
“That is corrected,” Blazer said.
“It is an agreement to do something that the law forbids,” Dearie said.
“OK,” Blazer said.
Dearie noted that Blazer was also charged with money laundering and tax evasion.
“Are you familiar with all of this?” Dearie asked.
“Yes,” Blazer said.
Dearie sought to ensure that Blazer had fully considered all the particulars of his 19-page plea agreement with the government, which carried the implicit promise of a reduced sentence on charges that could carry as much as 20 years.
“Would you agree that this is an important 19 pages in your life right now?” Dearie asked.
“Extremely so,” Blazer said.
Blazer proceeded to plead guilty to taking bribes and kickbacks with a zest that the Gotti brothers would have admired. Two of his admissions were especially significant.
The first one was: “I agreed with other persons in or around 1992 to facilitate the acceptance of a bribe in conjunction with the selection of the host nation for the 1998 World Cup.”
The second, more important one, was: “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.”
Agents from the FBI and the IRS were present in the courtroom, and they are reported to have been hoping even then that Blazer’s admissions would lead to admissions by others and ultimately to the arrest of FIFA’s longtime president, Sepp Blatter.
To ensure that word of Blazer’s plea did not alert Blatter and other targets of the investigation, the prosecutors had asked Dearie to keep the proceedings closed.
“Both the nature of the investigation, the identity 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, do irreparable damage to that investigation and the effectiveness of any prosecution thereafter to follow,” Dearie concurred.
The judge ordered the court officer to check for anybody lurking in the hallway before locking the courtroom, which was unusually empty of spectators and those with other business. That absence was a touch eerie considering the magnitude of the case.
“Monday morning at 10 after 10, you would think we are in the middle of the night,” Dearie remarked.
The court officer reported that nobody was outside.
“The hallway is empty,” Dearie said. “Now the courtroom is sealed?”
“Yes, it is,” the officer said.
Dearie was also careful to ensure that Blazer was adequately fit—both mentally and physically—to make his admissions.
“How old are you, sir?” Dearie asked.
Blazer hesitated, seeming to blank momentarily on the answer.
“68,” Blazer then said.
“You are the second person I know, I being the first one, to actually stop on that question,” Dearie said. “I guess is it some sort of Freudian block.”
“It is,” Blazer agreed.
“How would you describe your health?” Dearie asked. “I know you are wheelchair-bound.”
Blazer had pocketed millions of FIFA cash and run up $26 million in American Express bills in a continuing pursuit of excess, during which he had swelled to 450 pounds. He had taken to going about in a mobility scooter.
“My health has two sides to it,” Blazer replied. “Personally, I have rectal cancer. I am being treated. I have gone through 20 weeks of chemotherapy, and I am looking pretty good for that. I am now in the process of radiation, and the prognosis is good.”
Whatever else Blazer was, he did not seem to be a complainer. He went on, “At the same time, I have a variety of other less significant ailments dealing with diabetes and coronary artery disease but holding up reasonably well.”
“Are you physically comfortable now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“So you are able to concentrate and participate in this proceeding given the gravity of this matter?”
After Blazer had pleaded guilty to all 10 counts against him, there remained the matter of bail. He was freed on a $10 million unsecured bond.
“Good luck with your health,” Dearie said.
At 11 a.m., 50 minutes after they started, the proceedings were done.
Blazer returned to being an informant, and one result was this month’s 163-page indictment of 14 FIFA officials and associates. The investigators hope that some of these folks will themselves decide to cooperate.
After the charges were announced from Brooklyn by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Blatter declared in Zurich that the case “smelled” of politics. He brushed away calls for his resignation and was reelected on Friday.
But over the weekend word spread that the FBI and the IRS had traced the bribe money to the highest levels of FIFA. Blatter announced that he was stepping down, perhaps with the hope that it would make him a less choice target for indictment.
If Blatter does end up in Dearie’s courtroom along with whichever defendants prove unable to fight extradition, you can be sure the judge from the borough of baseball and basketball will now know how to pronounce FIFA.
And the defendants from the world of soccer will learn all about RICO.
As Gene Gotti and so many others have learned, Mr. Rico is nobody you want to get to know.