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Stranger than fiction

By Lars

He’s the head of the central bank in Finland and a rising hawk within the EU. So why is Olli Rehn, the vice president of Fifa’s governance committee, risking his reputation by publicly praising Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who is the subject of a criminal investigation?

By Pål Ødegård

The Finn Olli Rehn was recently announced as the leader of Fifa’s new supposedly independent steering committee for the COVID-19 aid plan, which consists of using Fifa funds totalling 1,5 billion US dollars as handouts to member associations across the globe, in order to cushion the negative economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In a speech during a club conference in the Finnish football association, Olli Rehn made eyebrow-raising comments about Fifa president Gianni Infantino, which has also been published on the association’s web site:

“In recent years, under the leadership of its President, Gianni Infantino, FIFA has focused above all on its reform by following sustainable ethical rules and principles of good governance. FIFA is today a very different organization than it was five years ago and there is no longer any basis or element allowing vague accusations to be made. It should be noted that FIFA was obliged to cooperate with the authorities and it is important to keep in mind that there were – and still are – around 20 ongoing investigations with the prosecutor’s office general in which FIFA is an injured party.”

The full speech by Olli Rehn can be found HERE. 

Under the influence
Olli Rehn’s support for Infantino comes less than three weeks after the Swiss federal public prosecutor announced that the Fifa president is under a criminal investigation for ‘indications of criminal conduct’ in relation to several clandestine meetings he’s had with the Swiss general attorney Michael Lauber and another law official, Rinaldo Arnold. Fifa subsequently arranged a press conference led by Fifa vice president Alastair Bell, despite the organization itself not being under investigation.

Sources close to the events, who don’t want to be named, expressed to Josimar they find it disheartening and incomprehensible that a spokesman for good governance within the EU, not only seem to ignore the lack of it at Fifa, but also give vocal support for its president, who Josimar’s sources are adamant ought to have been temporarily suspended. A former Fifa development officer, the Cameroonian Zelkifli Ngoufonja, even sent a letter to Olli Rehn, expressing disbelief that a man of his position can turn a blind eye to the apparent total lack of independence and integrity at Fifa’s independent committees. 

Among football officials around the world there is a growing sensation that the independent watchdog committees of Fifa are under the complete influence of the Fifa president.

Back to window dressing
The ethics committee was set up by the previous Fifa president Sepp Blatter to counter criticism for lack of transparency in the organization. Although early versions were more window dressing than a proper controlling organ, consisting of non-professional members, it eventually evolved with a comprehensive code of ethics, which was written by the then chairman of the ethics committees adjudicatory chamber, Hans Joachim Eckert. Together with the chairman of the investigatory chamber, Cornel Borbély, he eventually banned Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini for a payment of 2 million Swiss Francs from Fifa to the latter, who was supposed to take over from Blatter, and who at the time was president of Uefa.

The ban of Blatter and Platini came following the so-called FifaGate arrests, where dozens of football officials were detained in Zurich on the eve of a Fifa congress. Most have since been sentenced for racketeering, money laundering and fraud by the US department of justice.

As both Blatter and Platini were now blocked from running for the president seat at Fifa, Infantino was first supposed to warm the seat for the French ex-footballer until Platini had served or overturned his ban. By a close margin, Gianni Infantino beat front runner Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain in February 2016 after campaigning for more transparency and to hand out more money to member associations. “We will restore the image of Fifa, the respect of Fifa, and everyone will applaud us”, the newly elected president told the congress hall after his win.

A committee to propose governance reforms to counter the corrupt culture  had already been set up before Infantino became president, and the proposal, written by the Swiss lawyer François Carrard, was to be voted upon at the subsequent Fifa congress in Mexico City in May the same year.

The fresh president had already involved himself in controversy as a recording, leaked to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, from a Fifa council meeting revealed how Infantino tried to remove the chairman of the newly set up audit and compliance committee at Fifa, Domenico Scala. Although it was very vague which powers this committee had at the time, it was this committee that was responsible to set the salary of Fifa officials, including the president’s. The Swiss-Italian was livid that his salary was only 2 million Swiss Franc a year, and told the other council members he found this “insulting”.

During this meeting the newly elected president made his power move. Infantino persuaded the others to propose a resolution to temporarily appoint and dismiss members of the independent committees from the closure of the Mexico congress, and up until the next congress in Bahrain March 2017. British council member David Gill protested during the meeting, and was heard during the debate saying “we can’t operate in this way. We can’t dismiss people without a piece of paper and facts”.

The resolution was passed almost unanimously by the congress. Some of the delegates told the press afterwards that they weren’t really sure what exactly they voted upon. 

The clear-out
Leading up to the next congress in Manama, Bahrain, rumours floated that several of the independent committee members were to be replaced. At this point Infantino himself was investigated by the ethics committee for several breaches of the Fifa statutes and ethics code. Still, the scale and form of the pogrom was a surprise. Both chairmen of the ethics committee were dismissed as they were on their way to the congress. Cornel Borbély called a hastily improvised press conference from a hotel in Manama, lamenting the decision, claiming more than ‘hundreds’ open cases would now be put on hold until the new chairpersons had received the handover. 

Perhaps more surprisingly, the chairman of the newly established Governance committee, former Portuguese minister Miguel Maduro Poiares, was also removed by Infantino, just eight months after taking office.

Other independent committee members resigned in protest, as the New York City law professor Joseph Weiler, and the human rights advocates Navi Pillay and Ron Popper. The Swiss Law professor Mark Pieth, who had drafted the reform proposals, heavily criticised the ousting of the independent chairmen.

At this point active investigations by the ethics committee were ongoing against both Gianni Infantino and the secretary general Fatma Samoura, who had been appointed by Infantino shortly after his election victory. As the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet reported recently, former Fifa vice secretary general Markus Kattner filed a 30-page complaint to the ethics committee listing up the enormous expenses Infantino accumulated for taking expensive private jets instead of cheaper options, as stipulated in the regulations.

Ekstra Bladet also revealed how Infantino lied to the chairman of the audit and compliance committee, Tomaž Vesel, that he needed a private jet in order to catch a meeting with Vesel’s countryman and Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin i Nyon, while Čeferin in reality was busy on an official visit to Armenia. As Josimar reported in 2016, Vesel and Čeferin are friends, and play football together for an amateur club in Slovenia. Fatma Samoura was also reported to the ethics committee for having overcharged for cleaning services at her apartment in Zurich. Samoura paid back the difference, according to Fifa.

A few months later, another ethics complaint arrived at Borbély’s desk as Infantino had unduly interfered in the presidential election of Caf, the African confederation, which is considered autonomous from Fifa in that regard. Undue interference is explicitly forbidden in the Fifa regulations. 

However, with the March 2017 election coming just two months ahead of the Bahrain congress, this investigation was still pending in its preliminary stage when Borbély was removed.

Infantino brushed away criticism in the wake of the Bahrain congress, stating it was “a storm in a glass of water”, and added that the new chairpersons had impeccable integrity and expertise for their jobs. As Josimar has reported earlier, this is not exactly the case. 

For the audit and compliance committee, vice chairperson Sindiwa Mabaso-Koyana, a South African businesswoman, moved up as head of the committee on an interim basis. According to Fifa, Mabaso-Koyana was the one that recommended Tomaž Vesel to take over for Domenico Scala as the new chairperson. But when Josimar talked to her, she said she had nothing to do with it, that Vesel had been appointed by someone else, even if she ratified it. As Josimar revealed in 2016, Vesel’s appointment was questionable at best, as he had held a position at the Slovenian association (member of the youth committee) up until taking office at Fifa, while the regulations impose a two-year cooling period before being appointable.

The leader of the governance committee, Miguel Maduro, when hired right after the Mexico congress, was Infantino’s trump card to show he meant business cleaning up the bad governance in the organization.

Yet he was removed almost before he had started, for a newly set up committee that among other tasks had the responsibility to vet candidates for important Fifa positions such as the Fifa council slots. But when he decided that the Russian minister Vitaly Mutko wasn’t eligible as he held a political position that could be a potential conflict of interest, he also found out that the Fifa president did all in his power to make him reverse his decision.

As Maduro told Josimar, Samoura and Vesel were sent to Brussels for an unsanctioned meeting with Maduro where they tried to persuade him to let Mutko stand for the election. In other words, Samoura and Vesel violated the ethics code by doing so.

Maduro didn’t budge, which is why he was removed by the congress on the orders of the Fifa president. Vice chairman Mukul Mudgal, a retired Indian supreme court magistrate, had voted against Mutko initially, but made him eligible as soon as Maduro was gone. Weiler, the law professor who resigned in protest after Maduro was removed, filed a complaint about Vesel and Samoura meeting Maduro, which, according to the new chairperson of the ethics committee, doesn’t exist anymore.

In the ethics committee, Borbély was replaced by Maria Claudia Rojas, a Colombian magistrate. The Fifa administration defended the shake-up with the argument that they wanted a bigger geographical spread and gender diversity in their independent committees. However, Rojas had no experience in investigations, and was quickly caught in a lie as she shortly after taking office declared that there were no pending investigations into the Fifa president or the secretary general. This would become her modus operandi, making complaints against the Fifa president go away.

On 19 August, Fifa published a statement from the chairwoman of the ethics committee’s investigatory chamber. (Read the statement HERE.)

As the statement says, Rojas claims to have opened an investigation into Gianni Infantino’s meetings with the former Swiss state prosecutor Lauber, who recently resigned from his office because of these meetings. But after having studied the case, the Colombian magistrate concluded there was no basis for prima facie (meaning the ethics committee did not consider Infantino to have violated any article in the ethics code after a preliminary look at the facts), and binned the case altogether. According to Fifa, Rojas had access to the case files which involved the meetings between Lauber and Infantino.

However, to Josimar’s knowledge, state prosecutor Stefan Keller’s case folder now includes other documents that don’t involve the meetings mentioned, but other actions by the Fifa president that might lead to criminal charges. In other words, Rojas characteristically again dismissed a complaint against the Fifa president without performing any kind of investigation, while ignoring well documented facts presented by those who filed the complaints. A source Josimar spoke to who attended a preliminary ethics hearing said that Rojas had not performed any investigations of her own previous to the meeting, and expected the accuser to carry the entire burden of evidence.

A greek tragedy
The new chairperson of the ethics committee’s adjudicatory chamber, Vassilis Skouris, a Greek judge who had formerly presided the European court of justice, took over for Eckert. As revealed by Der Spiegel in November 2018, as they published a series from the Football Leaks material obtained through the hacker Rui Pinto, one report mentioned how Skouris would send drafts for amendments for the ethics code to Infantino, who then would make significant changes that ended up in the final version, which later were ratified by the congress.

“I have always said that the new Code of Ethics is Infantino’s work and here’s the proof.” Infantino’s interference is “a clear violation of the FIFA code and statutes,” Eckert told Der Spiegel at the time. FIFA, for its part, said it was “fully implausible” that Skouris, a former president of the European Court of Justice, could be pressured into making a decision against his will, in a reply to the same publication. Among the amendments, which were ratified by the Fifa congress in Moscow June 2018, was one where only the ethics committee chairperson (Rojas) was able to initiate a preliminary ethics investigation, leaving the other committee members in the dark until an advanced stage, building their case solely based on the material that the chairperson would present. Skouris replied to Infantino’s changes with “excellent”. A Fifa spokesperson said to Reuters that the exchange between Skouris and Infantino was “entirely natural”.

The Fifa president also set up a new office called director of the independent committees, with the Italian lawyer and former Uefa legal committee member Mario Galavotti. The Italian acts as an intermediary between the independent committees and the presidential office, hence compromising the independence of the committees. Fifa has yet to give a good explanation why this appointment helps the integrity of the independent bodies.

Now, Infantino is under a criminal investigation in his home country. The possible charges are still unknown. But this did not stop Maria Claudia Rojas from stating that after having looked at the case, found that there were no grounds for prima facie, meaning on the face of it, there was no indication that Infantino had violated Fifa’s ethics code.

Comparing this to when Sepp Blatter was provisionally banned by the ethics committee in October 2015 after having become the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland, the current ethics committee certainly have a different view than the previous one, who considered it vital to provisionally ban any official under a criminal investigation in order to protect the integrity and reputation of Fifa, as stated in their code of ethics.

Both Blatter, Platini and former secretary general Jerome Valcke were speed-processed by Fifa’s legal system before being handed long-term bans.

Olli Rehn doesn’t have a reputation for being corrupted, rather the opposite. So why is Rehn so laxed about Gianni Infantino’s dismal record since taking reign at Fifa?

The Nordic model
Olli Rehn’s remarks at the club assembly, which was attended by the president of the Danish football association, Peter Møller, is another step by the Nordic countries away from the idealism and good governance which were their trademark in previous decades. Instead a pragmatic approach has been applied, which has brought not only Olli Rehn to important positions within Fifa, but also the Swedish FA president Karl-Erik Nilsson, who was voted onto Uefa’s executive committee in 2017, making him the organisation’s first vice president.

The Nordic countries are also well represented among the Fifa president’s staff. His closest adviser, the ‘consigliere’ Mattias Grafström is from Sweden, was brought over from Uefa. Meanwhile, the former secretary general of the Norwegian FA, Kjetil Siem, was appointed as a strategic adviser in 2017. As Josimar reported the year earlier, in 2016, Siem was actively campaigning for Aleksander Čeferin to become Uefa president on behalf of Infantino, while the Nordic bloc uncharacteristically were the first to endorse Čeferin as its preferred candidate, which gave the Slovenian great legitimacy despite the fact that the current Uefa president didn’t meet the eligibility criterias of the European football confederation.

Mr Rehn is an ambitious man. He has previously run as a candidate for several high-ranking positions, as the head of the EU’s central bank, and as Europe’s member on the IMF board, although on both occasions as a dark horse, and where he eventually pulled out before the elections. But although pragmatism, political favours and ambition is needed to make a career in Finnish and European politics, the same approach at Fifa might risk making Rehn associated with unethical behaviour, perhaps even criminal. 

Rehn, in his role as economic affairs commissioner at the EU, was the architect behind forcing higher standards of transparency and anti-corruption measures on Eastern European nations that wanted to join the union. At Fifa, however, he has yet to comment on the many reports of ethics violations and manipulation of vetting procedures, including the closing of three ethics investigations into the Fifa president, and secretary general Fatma Samoura.

Unfit for duty
Anne Brasseur, a former president of the council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, performed interviews with Borbély, Eckert and Maduro, but also of Rojas and Infantino. In her final report in 2017, she lamented that the timing of the removal of the former chairmen, and deemed Rojas unfit for her task, as she had no experience with investigations.

Brasseur also reported that the Fifa president admitted they had put pressure on Maduro to make Vitaly Mutko eligible for the Fifa council position, and questioned the influence the Fifa administration had over the independent committees. She was especially alarmed by Rojas announcing shortly after being appointed that there were no open investigations into Gianni Infantino.

Both Anne Brasseur and Miguel Maduro have advocated for the European Union to lead Fifa’s independent committees as the only way to make Fifa accountable and effective regarding governance. Fifa never answered Brasseur’s report, which must have been ignored by Olli Rehn as well. 

The ambitious Finn hence separates himself from other ‘silent accomplices’, like member associations that vote whatever the Fifa council proposes (most votes are hastily voted upon, and hardly ever go below 90 per cent approval). He is also now a vocal supporter of Infantino among the independent committee members, where characters such as Gibraltar’s Michael Llamas, Gibraltar’s attorney general and member of the investigatory chamber of the ethics committee. Like Rehn, many of these committee members have distinguished careers and high-ranking political positions outside football. Yet, none has so far spoken out about the erosion of Fifa’s integrity. One might wonder if they silently are concerned. Whether it’s over the lackluster governance at Fifa, or anxiety they will lose the nice CV entry and economical compensation from Fifa, they only know themselves.

Josimar has repeatedly tried to contact Olli Rehn, without any success.

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