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FIFA officials arrested on corruption charges

Michael Buholzer | AFP | Getty Images

Swiss authorities began an extraordinary early-morning operation here Wednesday to arrest several top soccer officials and extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges.

As leaders of FIFA, soccer's global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich. The arrests were made at the request of the United States Justice Department, which brought charges in the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn, according to law enforcement officials.

Prosecutors planned to unseal an indictment soon against more than 10 officials, not all of whom are in Zurich, three law enforcement officials said. The charges include wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering.

The arrests were a startling blow to FIFA, a multibillion-dollar organization that governs the world's most popular sport but has been plagued by accusations of bribery for decades.

The inquiry is also a major threat to Sepp Blatter, FIFA's longtime president who is generally recognized as the most powerful person in sports, though law enforcement officials said he was not charged. An election, seemingly pre-ordained to give him a fifth term as president, is scheduled for Friday.

The case is the most significant yet for United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who took office last month. She previously served as the United States attorney in Brooklyn, where she supervised the FIFA investigation.

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With more than $1.5 billion in reserves, FIFA is as much a global financial conglomerate as a sports organization. With countries around the world competing aggressively to win the bid to host the World Cup, Mr. Blatter has commanded the fealty of anyone who wanted a piece of that revenue stream. He and FIFA have weathered corruption controversies in the past, but none involved charges of federal crimes in a United States court.

United States law gives the Justice Department wide authority to bring cases against foreign nationals living abroad, an authority that prosecutors have used repeatedly in international terrorism cases. Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider.

Switzerland's treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in American courts.

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The case further mars the reputation of FIFA's leader, Mr. Blatter, who has for years acted as a de facto head of state. Politicians, star players, national soccer officials and global corporations that want their brands attached to the sport have long genuflected before him.

Critics of FIFA point to the lack of transparency regarding executive salaries and resource allocations for an organization that, by its own admission, had revenue of $5.7 billion from 2011 to 2014. Policy decisions are also often taken without debate or explanation, and a small group of officials — known as the executive committee — operates with outsize power. FIFA has for years operated with little oversight and even less transparency. Alexandra Wrage, a governance consultant who once unsuccessfully attempted to help overhaul FIFA's methods, famously labeled the organization "byzantine and impenetrable."