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British journalist, Andrew Jennings, has been investigating Sepp Blatter, his cronies, and FIFA for a long time. The titles of two books reveal what he’s found: FOUL! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging, and Ticket Scandals (2006) and Omerta: Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Organized Crime Family (2014).

Fifa Bribes

Jennings was understandably pleased to learn that the FBI had taken action. “I know that they are criminal scum and I’ve known it for years,” Jennings told The Washington Post a few days ago.

He’s not alone. While the FBI action—applauded universally—is a classic “bad guys finally get caught” story, there’s another angle to consider. It’s about how we're doing legal business in America—avoiding the Rule of Law, which ensures that everybody is treated the same. But these days, it seems, it’s not always a matter of whether you’ve committed a crime; it could be a matter of who committed the crime.

Let’s investigate this assertion.

Without doubt, charges brought by the U.S. against FIFA cronies are serious and numerous, including wire fraud and racketeering. But those indictments were brought against non-citizens and the U.S. had to cross international boarders to “get ‘em.”

How could the U.S. bring charges legally? Dave Zirin offers an answer in The Nation. He reports that the Justice Department “used a prosecutorial authority often present in international terror cases.” It’s a new law, put in place after 9/11. Its purpose was stretched in the FIFA matter, enabling the U.S. to take legal action.

That’s how the Feds did it. But why did they do it? Let’s consider the politics.

  • Politics #1: FIFA cronies are a popular target. Nobody here gives a rip about those guys. The prevailing belief is that they got away with proverbial murder for years. They did wrong—big-time—and should pay.
  • Politics #2: A new U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, just took office. She’s defining her leadership style. What better way to do it than against FIFA? It was low-hanging fruit, too. Before going to DC, Lynch headed the NYC branch of the FBI, which was investigating FIFA.
  • Politics #3: The U.S. Government gets applause from both sides of the political aisle, the Left and Right. Those on the Left support serious sports reform. Those on the Right, neocons especially, applaud the U.S. for crossing international boundaries and asserting its authority.

Why go after FIFA when, for years, bank cronies have gone unpunished? Institutional fines, not individual jail time, have been the penalties levied for wrongdoing—billions and billions in fines.

But, here’s the thing: Why go after FIFA when, for years, bank cronies have gone unpunished? Institutional fines, not individual jail time, have been the penalties levied for wrongdoing—billions and billions in fines.

How much? It’s an estimated $128 billion dollars from 2009 through the end of August 2014 according to data compiled by The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and The Huffington Post. What were the offenses? They include “issues tied to the housing collapse and other financial misdeeds, including aiding and abetting money laundering and tax evasion.”

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Those figures don’t include fines levied since the middle of last year. Just a week ago USA Today reported that the U.S. had fined multiple banks over $5 billion dollars for engaging in corrupt activities. Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase. Barclays, and the Royal Bank of Scotland routinely and systematically rigged global foreign-exchange markets for the banks' financial gain. Once again, no indictments against individuals were announced. Fines were levied only.

That legal disconnect—going after some criminals, but not others—concerns some people. Zirin is one: “For those who have concerns about the Justice Department’s attacking FIFA while corrupt bankers go free…. I share those concerns greatly."

Will that portrait change with the FIFA indictments? It might. USA Today reported on June 2 that the U.S., Justice Department is studying whether or not executives at three major U.S.-based banks--JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America—knew they were laundering funds for persons indicted in FIFA-presumed corruption.

If bank executives knowingly complied in illegal activity, that outcome could be a game-changer. And it would be about time. “The Rule of Law” needs to be applied to all people, under all circumstances—not selectively and circumstantially "at will." It's as though The Enron Scandal, which included the imprisonment of executives, took place in another country.

Why haven’t we treated corrupt bank executives the way we're treating FIFA cronies? Consider the politics.

  • Politics #1: FIFA has very little political value, and influence, in this country. Banks, on the other hand, have a lot of political value and influence. Not incidentally, banks and banking executives contribute significantly in U.S. elections.
  • Politics #2: Very few Americans play important roles in FIFA’s management structure. But many elite Americans—some of whom migrate between Washington posts and Wall Street corner offices—play important roles in the U.S. banking structure.
  • Politics #3: The U.S. Government and some states (e.g., New York) make good use of the billions they receive from fines levied against corrupt financial institutions. It’s easy to become dependent on that money flow.

What's the take-away message? FIFA crooks are small enough to indict and big banks are large enough to fine. “Good politics” results from indicting FIFA cronies and “good money” comes from fining big banks.

And if you think that levying large fines fits the banking crime and deters bank corruption, do this: study bank stock prices and executive compensation. Both are up, big time.


Where’s justice in this democracy?

Frank Fear

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared at The Sports Column.