(Reuters) - Soccer’s world governing body FIFA has launched an internal investigation of alleged corruption, two people familiar with the matter said, in a development that may signal greater cooperation with criminal probes by U.S. and Swiss authorities.
Members of FIFA’s executive committee were briefed on the internal investigation at a closed-door meeting in Zurich last month, said the sources, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, a U.S. law firm, is conducting the investigation, which is running parallel to the probes by authorities in the United States and Switzerland, the sources said. The results of the investigation are expected to be shared with the authorities, they added.
FIFA was thrown into turmoil in May when U.S. prosecutors announced the indictment of nine current and former soccer officials, many of whom had FIFA positions, and five sports marketing executives. Prosecutors said the 14 corrupted the sport by agreeing to more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks for media and marketing rights.
It was previously known only that FIFA had hired Quinn Emanuel to represent its interests during the U.S. and Swiss investigations. Reuters was not able to determine what stage the internal investigation had reached or how long it would take.
FIFA is cooperating with authorities and will not comment on ongoing investigations, said a spokeswoman for the Zurich-based organization.
“We are dedicated to improving the organization, and will continue to strengthen FIFA’s governance and accountability. Our work in this area continuously evolves, and we are focused on achieving the highest standards for the international football community,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
Representatives with the world’s six continental soccer confederations either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. Top former officials from the two confederations in the Americas are among those who have been indicted by the U.S.
In the corporate world, an internal investigation like this is a common practice if a company could be the target of U.S. prosecutors. By launching its own investigation, often run by a big law firm, a company can try to show it is committed to cooperating with authorities and wants to get to the bottom of a problem.
“One thing to understand about these internal investigations is how de rigueur they are. Really, every company does them,” said Michael Fine, an anti-bribery and compliance expert at the New York consulting firm LRN.
In exchange for voluntarily disclosing wrongdoing, a company may get treated more leniently when the U.S. Justice Department is deciding whether to bring charges and seek fines, according to official guidelines published by the department.
U.S. authorities have said their investigation is continuing and that additional people could be indicted. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on FIFA’s internal investigation.
The Swiss criminal investigation into possible corruption in soccer is specifically targeting the award of the World Cup hosting rights to Russia for 2018 and to Qatar for 2022. It is at an earlier stage than the U.S. investigation.
Quinn Emanuel lawyers in their presentation to FIFA’s executive committee last month made clear that they are reporting to FIFA’s general counsel, Marco Villiger, not to FIFA President Sepp Blatter or Secretary General Jerome Valcke, the sources said. Villiger has been the director of legal affairs at FIFA since 2007 and previously was the head of disciplinary matters.
It is not clear how the election of a new FIFA president at a meeting scheduled for February would affect the internal investigation.
Blatter and Valcke have both been widely criticized for their handling of the corruption crisis enveloping FIFA, and Blatter has said he will not run in the February election. Swiss prosecutors have said Blatter and Valcke may be summoned for questioning, and sources have told Reuters that the FBI is examining their stewardship of FIFA as part of its probe.
Blatter is fully cooperating with the internal investigation, his U.S. lawyer Richard Cullen said. A lawyer for Valcke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although authorities have so far described FIFA as a victim of the alleged corruption, the organization itself could still be added as a defendant at the discretion of prosecutors, especially if they believe FIFA is not fully cooperating as a victim would, according to lawyers with expertise in complex criminal cases.
A senior U.S. prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, said in a speech in April before the FIFA case became public that generally the government expects cooperation to be timely and complete.
“We expect cooperating companies to identify culpable individuals - including senior executives if they were involved - and provide the facts about their wrongdoing,” Caldwell said.
FIFA had a rocky experience with an earlier internal investigation by Michael Garcia of Kirkland & Ellis, another U.S. law firm. Garcia quit his job as FIFA’s ethics investigator in December in protest at the way FIFA handled his report on allegations of corruption in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Garcia’s report, which has not been made public, had limited evidentiary value for authorities because Garcia had no subpoena power and did not take sworn testimony, a source told Reuters in June.
U.S. prosecutors could eventually turn to a court-appointed monitor to try to ensure that FIFA cleans up its act, a tactic they have used with organizations as diverse as major banks and labor unions, according to attorneys with expertise in such matters.
Reporting by David Ingram and Simon Evans; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Martin Howell