‘We have to get back to football’: Copa America begins amid ashes of scandal

Steve Brenner: As Copa America Centenario kicks off, the power broker depicted to have obtained it illegally for the United States softly awaits his fate

Fast automobiles. Monstrous manors. Bribes, backhanders, and ridiculously expensive gravy boats.

Welcome to the murky world of Jeffrey Webb and his reign at the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football( Concacaf ), which has developed into a key component on cracking down on corruption-shaming soccer.

Today, the once well-respected Cayman Islander awaits his fate to be decided after pleading guilty to seven counts of receiving bribes for the sale of commercial rights for 2018 and 2022 World Cup qualifying matches, and again in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The fast-approaching Copa America Centenario tournament was also included in the illegal activities, with $110 m revealed to have been obtained inappropriately.

While the festivals of that showpiece event begins, which the 50 -year-old had a hand in planning, Webb sits in the shadows contemplating where it all went wrong.

A lavish birthday party for his wife earlier this year, staged at his Georgia estate while under house arrest, perhaps demonstrated hes not overly perturbed at the prospect of spending 20 years in jail.

He should be. Certainly, it will take more than a moment of majesty from Lionel Messi to shed light on a life which has become mired in darkness and deceit.

The spotlight will be glistening ferociously in the organizations direction the summer months – and rightly so. It promises to be a huge moment for recently elected president Victor Montaglianis brave new era.

Over two years ago, I was approached by the Caribbean news program 18 Degrees North with the backing of the Fund for Investigative Journalism to begin investigating Webb and his rise to becoming one of the most powerful men in the game, as well as a potential successor to the disgraced Sepp Blatter.

Already, the organization was teetering following the ruinous reign of the notorious Jack Warner, who was implicated in numerous corruption allegations, which flagged Fifas ethics committee before his abdication in 2011.

A supposed attempt to paint the idea of a shiny, new epoch of transparency under Webbs guidance was being preached.

Indeed, during an interview with 18 Degrees North in the Cayman Islands in October 2013, Webb spoke about the organization owing the IRS$ 6m just one of the myriad repercussions of Warner and his American cohort Charles Chuck Blazer allegedly victimizing Concacaf to the tune of $80 m.

Interest was instantaneously piqued, and so began a trail after the former banker-turned-administrator, uncovering the garish arrogance and needless opulence, which is unfortunately symptomatic of the fat cat who have robbed the peoples global game.

After months of emails, the former head of public affairs, Felicitas Columbo, whose PR team urgently tried to shut down the interview down following Webbs admission, instantly went into crisis-management mode when we met at a Miami hotel in April 2014.

She talked emotionally of how Webbs confidant, Enrique Sanz, had been diagnosed with leukemia and was undergoing chemotherapy, which, naturally, eclipsed any football matters.

Significantly, Colombian-American Sanz, with offices in Brazil and the United States, was heading up the organizations Miami office. He had administered a $1.1 m pay from a sports-marketing and TV-distribution company for the media rights to Concacafs 2013 Gold Cup, as well as the 2013 -1 4 and 2014 -1 5 Champions Leagues. Though Sanz was not named, he is widely thought to be Co-Conspirator# 4, who is described as serving as a high ranking official at Traffic Sports from 1999 to 2012, which is the Sanz was named Concacafs general secretary. He was terminated from that post last year after the FBI investigation was made public.

The following year, Webb, who remarkably started his presidency without receiving a wage( despite being strongly advised otherwise ), received a$ 3m backhander when the contract was renewed.

Clearly, this was a man who didnt require a paycheck.

Accepting the bribe, however, was just one of many violations ensuring he was unequivocally implicated during the course of its FBIs 47 -count indictment in 2015, which uncovered fraudulent activity within Fifa at an unprecedented level.

The 50 -year-old Cayman Islands FA boss agreed to forfeit more than $6.7 m as part of his plea deal after failing to meet the $10 m bail conditions.

Furthermore, Fifa have written to the US Department of Justice urging them to take a harder look at Webbs assets.

The revelation that his wife owned a Ferrari simply added to growing concerns about how the man, who was eyeing the top task at Fifa, resulted his life.

Of the 39 people charged by US authorities, 12 were Concacaf officials.

The corruption started by Warner, attorneys allege, was being perpetuated by Webb. Fresh new start, indeed.

Nevertheless, when New York-based lawyer, Samir Gandhi, and his colleagues from statute firm Sidley Austin were refused to access to the organizations details following his arrival soon after Webbs appointment four years ago, alarm bells started shrieking.

There were no fiscal records for 2012 -1 3( records for 2014 and 2015 remain the subject of an internal investigation ). Concacaf was on its knees.

Although a clean-up is well underway, warned against overspending and needlessly overstretching resources are still not being heeded. After all, such a deep-rooted culture of wrongdoing wont course-correct overnight.

Right now, its not stable and there is, still, an aura of corruption over the organization, said Gandhi, who worked tirelessly on the independent 2013 report headed by Concacaf integrity committee head David Simmons which uprooted Warner and is now charged with reforming the regional body once again.

Having witnessed first-hand the callous nature of Warner and Blazers acts, the lawyers were understandably wary, especially as Webb – who worked for Fifas audit committee when Warner and Blazer were operating amok – and Sanzs friendship deepened.

I first fulfilled Jeff Webb in May 2012, Gandhi remembered. He had just become president and, on someone elses recommendation, had asked to talk to us. I brought in our internal investigations and white-collar team. I made some suggestions about how to investigate, what we would do about media rights, and certain valuations.

I simply tried to create some best practises compared to what they already had. The biggest issue we had was the organization never had any financial statements, so we had to come in and deal with all that stuff.

Enrique did bring some structure, but I remember telling him he needed to hire a real COO who would be in the office on a regular basis to deal with the business of the organization because nothing was get done. It was all controlled by him and Jeff. I told them, youre going to run yourself into the ground, but they didnt care about that.

For Webb to initially decline a salary, Gandhi told, was in itself suggestive.

I told Jeff to take a modest salary because, at the start, he wasnt taking anything. I advised him to take one because people would think he was a thief, Gandhi added.

Then he took a huge salary which included a lot of reimbursements. Perhaps because of that,$ 3m payoff, he didnt need the money. That sent a bad message, especially if youre spending so much period on the job. People will be thinking youre taking a lot of benefits. He was still was linked to the banks, but he wasnt doing much.

How on earth was this guy living?

Ever since Sidley Austin started sifting through the wreckage of Webbs reign, startling discoveries of fiscal overspending and purely self-serving decision- making all contributed to sending Concacaf to the brink of liquidation.

Lavish spending by Fifa has long been normality. Delegates are treated like royalty.

Due to their crippling finances, a tournament for U-1 5s in the Cayman Islands, which would have expense around$ 2m to stage last summer, was cancelled. The initial excuse was linked with the growing Fifa crisis, yet Concacafs desperate lack of funds there was just$ 2m of unrestricted money left with$ 9m unreachable in a Cayman bank under Webbs name was the real reason for its cancellation.

According to the Simmons report, by 2010 Concacafs annual revenues had grown to more than $25 m ($ 35 m in 2009, a Gold Cup year ), its total reported assets exceeded $45 m, and Concacafs full-time employees totaled more than 30.

Yet in 2015, the pot was nearly bare. So, it was no surprise that Gandhi recoiled in amaze and horror when detecting$ 3m was spent on last summers congress in the Bahamas.

That was an absurd quantity for a standalone congress, he acknowledged. It was absolutely outrageous.

Fifa spends $30 m on their congresses, but its simply not necessary. Its everything; I am sure some of it is protocol gifts and things like that, but it simply doesnt need to be that crazy. It needs to be more modest.

When we had a conference in Miami on February 12 th, we may have gone slightly overboard: we booked an airport Hilton, stimulated people double-up, and expend around $150,000 to $200,000 on a full-day meeting for 41 member associations.

And, that is the kind of range we should be spending. We shouldnt be spending most of our fund on travelling and protocol the largest amounts should be spent on things which go back to our member associations.

Even following Webbs arrest, Honduran Alfredo Hawit was, astonishingly, still attempting to broker deals and organize bribes.

Hawitt pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges on 12 April 2016.

The gall of these people is quite remarkable, he told. After the indictments, after coming into implement reforms, while the United States was in the final of the Gold Cup, Hawit was in a separate session trying to arrange a payoff. Its unbelievable. There are some people who feel this could go away and time will pass. They think it will all go back to the style it was. They think cheques will be cut all the time.

Thats not the style it runs anymore.

Suspicions about Webbs modus operandi were growing all the time. Attempting to delve into his past, and present, in the Cayman Islands, however, was highly problematic.

Razor-tight privacy statutes ensured anyone interviewed remained tight-lipped; private investigators who initially engaged speedily fell silent.

The devil, however, was securely in the details.

His October 2013 wedding to Kendra Gamble, an Atlanta-based physician, was an indulgent affair.

An extensive gift registry included a $400 gravy boat, and reflected the general opulence indicates that there is marriage photos of Webb holding an imported cigar and billowing smoke out of a Rolls-Royce.

Webbs largess didnt extend only to his jewelry drawer and wedding snaps real-estate databases revealed a six-bedroom property in Loganville, Georgia, for which a building company, according to FBI reports, was paid an astounding $1.5 m to allegedly perform routine pond maintenance.

While on supposed run jaunts, air travel totaling thousands of dollars plus exorbitant bar bills and evenings in the presence of strippers were all claimed for by Webb, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg.

There was no shame.

We did see some of those things moving into 2015 and we are pretty comfortable that all stuff was operating through these statements, said Gandhi when asked if expenses totalling thousands of dollars were claimed inappropriately.

At lot of these things were very inappropriate and the problem we had was that Jeff was approving Enriques expenses and vice versa. So that was all run through.

It takes a lot to pull back and, even when I had attended the Fifa reform committee, all the guys are flying business class; they are staying in is a great pleasure hotels.

At one point, I felt that this was really not necessary. We dont need to do this. We can stay at the Marriott, we dont need wine with lunch. We dont require a formal dinner every night. We are here to work.

Remember, its not our fund. It belongs to an organization which has a purpose.

While Fifas Goal Project and FAP( Financial Assisted Programme) initiatives helping to finance much-needed infrastructure in the Caribbean and beyond preferential treatment was extended to Webbs allies.

Whereas, for example, poverty-stricken organisations, such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, have watched plans for a desperately needed educate centre constantly cancelled, others have received substantial improvements, courtesy of cosy its relation with Webb and other influential power brokers.

We required new pitchings, new changing rooms, everything. Yet, we got nothing while others received huge benefits because of their closeness with Webb, said a former national-team coach-and-four who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It was very disappointing.

The creation of a Concacaf office in Webbs native Cayman Islands to work alongside the main HQ in Miami caused farther consternation.

Following his demise, it since has closed down with over 20 contracts dissolved. Other members of staff have been shown the door as the business is scrutinized, analysed, and fine-tuned.

One former employee, Lerina Bright, is suing for wrongful dismissal and, if the instance goes to tribunal afterward this year, her lawyers have promised to release severely unflattering recollections of Webbs attitude and way in the workplace.

Sidley Austin will oppose her all the style. Such radical change has upset many, yet the new guard are simply telling: If you dont like it, then leave.

The Cayman office, however, was another try by Webb to assert his authority.

Basically, it was because Jeff lived there, which was so typical, Gandhi admitted.

It was typical to have an office where the President was, for the General Secretary to move the HQ to wherever he wanted, which was kind of absurd. Imagine becoming the president of General Motor and having the ability to move the HQ to wherever you want. Its absurd and we got rid of that in the statutes.

Concacaf Cayman was about Jeff trying to consolidate some power, trying to create an infrastructure that basically was there for what he want to get do, as opposed to what the organizations interests were.

They didnt need 30 people on two floors in the Cayman Islands. He was using that office to operate his potential presidential and world soccer ambitions.

Warner, still lurking in the shadows, was withering in his criticism of Webb when speaking with us.

I havent spoken to Webb in the last four years , nor has he spoken to me that speaks for itself, he said.

Before, we used to talk each week, but not since he became a big son in Fifa.

He hasnt spoken to me and I have taken my corner. I havent spoken to him, but what Jeff Webb fails to realise is that what goes around, comes around.

With a culture of subterfuge and corruption running rife through the soccer world , no one, up until now, summoned up the courage to take a stand.

There were cover-ups everywhere the lawyers looked.

The reality was there were a lot of people who had the ability to say something if they wanted to. But they didnt, he added.

The staging of the Copa America will cost $200 m.

The crisis which engulfed the football authorities, however, virtually assured it cancelled before it began. Indeed, US national coach-and-four Jurgen Klinsmann told me lately that his preparations were effected with the German in a permanent state of limbo while talks continued behind closed doors as to whether the tournament would ever get off the ground.

In May 2016, US federal prosecutors claimed Conmebol, South Americas governing body, reached an agreement in 2013 with the Argentine sports-marketing company Datisa on a $240 m contract for rights to the Copa America in 2015, 2019 and 2023. In 2014, Conmebol, the committee is also also claimed, struck a $112.5 m bargain for this years Copa.

Following last years indictments, however, prosecutors alleged Datisa agreed to pay $ 110 m in bribes to South American football officials.

With Webb heavily involved in the development of the tournament, there was little exuberance within the United States to host the finals.

It was, after all, born from fraud.

Concacaf, dedicated just six months to organize an event which will be screened around the world, could end up losing money.

Revenues will be split between Conmebol, US Soccer, and Concacaf, although rather than it being seen as a pure money-making exert, officials are just desperate to produce a sight worthy of the entrants.

Concacaf received $14 m from Datisa, which they eventually were allowed to keep.

Yet, as negotiations continued last summer, the uncertainty over the Copa wreaked havoc with the organizations plans for the future.

We had already received $14 m from Datisa, but at that point, we werent even sure if the tournament was going to take place, so there was a fear that the money may need to be given back, said Gandhi who recently met with Fifas new chairman Gianni Infantino to discuss his plans for Concacaf moving forward.

So, effectively, we were looking at possible liquidation and had little alternative but to cancel the boys tournament in the Cayman.

We aimed the year[ 2015] with around $28 m in unrestricted cash. That approximately translated into a$ 8m swinging from where we were. We already had started at a bad place because the budget for the Bahamas in 2015 was a bullcrap budget.

It was all wrong. Enrique presented a rosy budget and it wasnt right. Now, we are implementing new policies in terms of bottom-up budgeting that we will run a slight gain/ loss for 2016. Thats not including the Copa.

The implementation of the Reform Framework already has begun, and can be is split into three categories: corporate governance; scam prevention and compliance; and transparency.

The installation of a new president in Northern america and, hence, carrying the power-base away from the Caribbean, has, to some extent, wiped slates clean.

Preventing fraud has been a key part of Gandhis work. A pre-approved vendor system for all contracts with Concacaf, including credit and background checks, has been introduced.

Outside consultants are brought in to improve bid processes. Audit counterparties for bribery and fraud, and review of internal controls, including expenditure and reimbursement controls, also have been introduced.

Furthermore, a whistleblower hotline has been established and will be managed by the organizations audit committee.

And, in what appears to finally be an era of transparency, annual financial statements and budgets will be made public for the first time.

Victor will be a good leader; he knows Fifa and they know him, concluded Gandhi.

We only have to get back to football, plain and simple.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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