ZURICH (AP) — Accused of trying to bribe his way to becoming the FIFA president, Mohamed bin Hammam returns to FIFA headquarters Friday for a hearing that could banish him from the sport.
Bin Hammam will face a five-man ethics panel which is set to deliver a verdict Saturday on the latest and most serious corruption scandal in FIFA’s 107-year history.
The Asian Football Confederation president was suspended seven weeks ago pending a full probe into allegations he arranged to pay Caribbean officials $40,000 cash bribes to back his election challenge against FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
With a lifetime ban among the possible sanctions, another round of negative headlines for FIFA would take attention away from Saturday evening’s 15-match program of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, including bin Hammam’s native Qatar playing in Doha against Vietnam.
Bin Hammam has pledged to give “convincing grounds” to refute evidence gathered by investigators, including the private firm of former FBI director Louis Freeh.
An ethics panel interim report, leaked to international media, stated there was “compelling” evidence from whistleblowers of a bribery conspiracy involving bin Hammam and his longtime FIFA executive committee colleague Jack Warner when Caribbean Football Union members met on May 10 in Trinidad.
Warner won’t face the panel’s judgment after resigning his FIFA vice presidency and all other soccer duties last month. He returned to his post as a Trinidad and Tobago government minister with FIFA’s thanks and a declaration of his “presumption of innocence.”
The ethics court also will hear charges leveled against two CFU staffers, Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, for their alleged part in distributing brown envelopes stuffed with $100 bills. Neither came to the initial May 29 hearings in Zurich and FIFA can’t compel them to attend Friday.
Since being suspended, bin Hammam has disappeared from public view and said little.
“As the process is still not yet completed, I have no intention, at the moment, to make any statements or interviews,” the 62-year-old Qatari wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Bin Hammam has updated his campaign website twice since Blatter was re-elected unopposed June 1, publishing statements condemning “continuous leaks of confidential information” and claiming FIFA bias against him.
“Despite all these, I am still looking for and hoping to receive a fair hearing — one which will not be influenced by any political agenda or motivation,” he wrote.
Bin Hammam denies buying votes but acknowledged transferring $360,000 to the CFU to pay for delegates’ travel to Trinidad, arranged through Warner’s family travel agency, plus accommodation and conference expenses.
The scandal was sparked when Bahamas officials alerted Warner’s longtime ally Chuck Blazer, an American member of the FIFA executive body, to the cash offers.
Whistleblowers from Bermuda, Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands also gave witness statements — described in the leaked report as “coherent, credible and detailed” — alleging that Warner informed them that he advised the Qatari candidate to provide cash gifts that could be spent as they chose.
At least nine of the 25 CFU members have helped the FIFA probe, including Louis Giskus of Suriname. He told the AP he was not suspicious at first because gifts are typically given on FIFA-related business, and Warner often dealt in cash.
Other Caribbean officials have denied being offered money and face their own FIFA investigation if the ethics panel opens a second wave of cases.
Bin Hammam has complained that the panel disregarded 12 CFU officials who provided written statements backing him and Warner.
FIFA and Freeh sought to question those supporters, who were warned that the ethics committee “may draw a negative inference” if they did not cooperate.
Interviews scheduled in Miami were canceled when most refused to travel to the United States, and some were later questioned in the Bahamas.
Bin Hammam’s Asian allies at FIFA, Worawi Makudi and Vernon Manilal Fernando, joined him in Trinidad and were asked to give evidence.
Manilal Fernando told The AP by telephone that he met with ethics panel member Robert Torres of Guam last month in Zurich, and that “the Freeh people were also there.”
“They asked for a statement and I made it. It’s not proper for me to discuss that. I should keep that part confidential,” the Sri Lankan official said, adding that FIFA told executive committee members not to contact bin Hammam during the investigation.
FIFA said this week that the ethics hearing was an independent process, and it could not comment on who was invited to attend Friday.
“FIFA offered to pay for the travel expenses of Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, since they were also summoned as witnesses,” the governing body said in a statement.
The ethics panel, chaired by Namibian judge Petrus Damaseb, will begin its deliberations Saturday, though its decisions could prove just the latest chapter in a legal saga.
If found guilty, bin Hammam can challenge the verdict at FIFA’s appeals committee, the Court of Arbitration for Sport and then the Swiss Federal Tribunal, which can overturn CAS rulings if judges believe legal process has been abused.
Eight months ago, FIFA’s ethics committee banished bin Hammam’s former colleague Amos Adamu for three years for seeking bribes in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests won by Russia and Qatar, respectively.
Nigeria’s Adamu is still waiting for an appeal hearing date at CAS.