Clashes within FIFA in danger of spilling over

Garcia, Eckert need to put their differences aside

For several days in September in a conference room at a Munich law office, two men discussed an investigation into potential corruption at the highest level of football.


One of the men was Michael J Garcia, a former US attorney who had spent the better part of the previous 11 months examining the circumstances surrounding the winning bids by Russia and Qatar for the right to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. As head of the investigatory branch of the ethics committee for FIFA, football’s governing body, he had written a report that he expected would eventually be made public, in the spirit of transparency.

The other important man at the table for those discussions was Hans-Joachim Eckert, a German judge who heads the adjudicatory arm of the ethics committee and who was charged with reading Garcia’s report and making recommendations to FIFA.As the meetings went on, it became clear that the two men at the center of an investigation that could shake the sport were not in agreement over how, or even whether, their work should be made public.

According to several people briefed on the meetings, Eckert and his deputy, Alan Sullivan, told Garcia early on that they thought much of the report could probably not be made public because of privacy concerns. 

That surprised Garcia, who had assumed that if the report was appropriately redacted - to protect a few crucial witnesses - most of it could, and should, be released.The people who discussed the meetings, which were held at the Munich office of Garcia’s law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the investigation. Garcia and Eckert declined to comment.

Garcia pointed out repeatedly to Eckert and Sullivan that this was not a criminal investigation but one that related to FIFA’s internal rules and regulations. Eckert did not appear to be swayed, however, and that disagreement was the beginning of an awkward, indirect back-and-forth over the past two months regarding the viability of releasing Garcia’s report.

In comments made at a legal luncheon in London, Garcia said that keeping the report secret was counterproductive and did nothing to quell the constant suspicion of corruption that has lingered over FIFA for years. Eckert, in a statement released by FIFA, responded that there were concerns over personal protection that had to be heeded and that he would write an initial “statement” on the report, expected to be released in the next week or two.

It is unclear how comprehensive that statement will be or whether it will include any citations from Garcia’s report.

This is not the first time Garcia and Eckert have disagreed. In 2013, after the release of a report by Garcia about alleged bribery involving top FIFA officials and a Brazilian broadcast company, Eckert made a short statement on the report. 

He noted that some actions by Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s longtime president, had possibly been “clumsy” but were neither criminal nor officially governed by FIFA’s ethics code at the time. Critics said that he glossed over the larger issue of whether Blatter or other officials had acted improperly.

According to Sylvia Schenk, a German lawyer who has worked on transparency issues in sports and has frequently urged FIFA to be more open with its actions, Eckert’s comments to Garcia in the meeting were not surprising. Although Eckert is known as a fair and consistent courtroom presence as a judge, Schenk said, he is also known for his devotion to minutiae.

“In some aspects Eckert is too much focused on criminal law and not the ethical aspects of the cases,” Schenk said. “They are totally different situations. In a criminal court, there are rules about what can be said and what can be revealed - in an ethics commission, as far as I understand it, it is more important to look at the people and explain why they should act in a certain way.”

She added: “It is not enough to say, 'There is no crime here.' That isn’t the question. This is about actions. What did people do? My expectation is that Mr Eckert is supposed to help FIFA come to a better reputation and to say clearly what is wrong and what is not wrong.”Mark Pieth, a professor of criminal law in Switzerland who was hired by FIFA several years ago to lead a committee charged with helping reform the organization, said he believed Eckert’s motivations may have been misunderstood. Pieth said that he had known Eckert for about 20 years - his recommendation played a part in Eckert assuming his role on the ethics committee - and that he believed Eckert was simply being cautious before assessing the veracity of Garcia’s work.

He also pointed out that Eckert communicates with Garcia through an interpreter, which may affect the clarity of his message. Eckert’s public statements may also be missing nuance because of language differences.

“My take is that they are playing a game,” Pieth said. “Garcia wrote the report. He wants it out. Of course he wants it out. But Eckert is the one in position to put it out. He can put out what he thinks is credible, what he believes in. One is saying, 'I’ve done my job, I have no problem. I want to see the spotlight.' The other guy is saying, 'Hang on, I want to do my job as well.'”

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