Find out how the Qatar 2020 corruption allegations could lead to criminal prosecutions

Published 19 June 2014 | Authored by: Neil Swift
For anyone with even a passing interest in football or current affairs, allegations that corruption played a substantial part in the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar cannot have gone unnoticed.1
Amid reports that those on FIFA’s executive committee apparently disregarded FIFA’s own assessment2 that hosting the World Cup in Qatar posed a high risk given the dangerously high summer temperatures, the complete absence in Qatar of a professional football culture or the necessary infrastructure to host the event, and of course the most recent revelations about the high threat posed by terrorism to an event held in Qatar, serious questions have been raised about the process by which the World Cup was awarded. The Sunday Times’ allegations3 linking Mohammed bin Hamman, the disgraced Qatari former FIFA executive, to payments from a $5m ‘slush fund’ to football officials in Africa give rise to a very credible suspicion that there is something rotten about Qatar’s successful bid.
 
For most, these revelations will be a matter of conversational interest but little more. However, for those with a current or prospective commercial interest in the 2022 World Cup might those suspicions lead to criminal liability?
 
The UK’s Proceeds of Crime Act 20024 is very widely drawn, and creates a number of criminal offences for those who deal with criminal property. There are a number of definitions which require closer examination.

 

Property is “criminal property5 if it was obtained by any person as a result of or in connection with criminal conduct, and the person accused knows or suspects that it was so obtained. “Criminal conduct6 includes criminal offences committed in the UK, or conduct which took place overseas but would be criminal if it occurred in the UK. It does not matter whose criminal conduct it was, or who benefitted from it. The definition of “property” is also very wide: as well as money, it includes “things in action and other intangible or incorporeal property”.
 
Credible allegations have been made (and widely reported) that the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar as a result of corruption. Although it appears that none of the conduct alleged took place within the UK, had it done so it would certainly amount to an offence under our anti-corruption laws then in force. We assume that the award consisted of a valuable bundle of commercial contractual rights, and as such are capable of amounting to “property” within the meaning of POCA. Whilst the Qatari bid team has sought to distance itself from bin Hamman’s actions7, it does not matter: if the property obtained was the proceeds of criminal conduct it does not matter that the benefit accrued to the Qatari bid vehicle as a result of another’s criminal conduct.
 
So far, all of this is outside the UK’s jurisdiction. However, section 328 of POCA8 makes it an offence for someone to enter or become concerned in an arrangement which they know or suspects facilitates the use of criminal property by or on behalf of another. The contractual rights granted by FIFA in awarding the World Cup are no doubt complex, but those within the UK’s jurisdiction must consider the risk of committing a criminal offence if they enter into an otherwise legitimate arrangement which facilitates the use by Qatar of those contractual rights.
 
As can be seen, mere suspicion of criminal conduct connected with the Qatar bid has potentially far reaching and serious consequences. Those immediately at risk include those involved in the construction of infrastructure, sponsors9 and broadcasters. Regardless of whether or not they face a real risk of prosecution, the compliance obligations arising as a result may themselves present difficulties in their relationships with their auditors and banks.
 
Of course FIFA has commissioned an investigation10 into the bidding for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The investigations have been carried out under the direction of FIFA’s own former New York attorney Michael Garcia.11 That report is due in mid July, but there are concerns that notwithstanding a two year investigation he has failed to consider all of the material upon which the recent Sunday Times allegations are based. Although it is understood that the conclusions of that report will be published, the indications so far are that the full report will not be. Of course we don’t yet know the conclusions the report will reach. If it concludes that there was something seriously wrong with the process, the only proper response for FIFA will be to re-run the bidding process. But if bin Hamman and the Qatari bid are exonerated, will that be the end of the suspicions, particularly if FIFA’s tendency towards opacity prevents publication of the complete report?
 
If the suspicion remains, then so does the problem.

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About the Author

Neil Swift

Neil Swift

Neil Swift is a Partner in the business crime department at Peters & Peters Solicitors LLP. He qualified in 1999 and became a Partner in 2010.  He has a broad range of experience in the fraud area, advising individual and corporate clients in relation to investigations and prosecutions by all major law enforcement bodies, including in particular the Serious Fraud Office, HM Revenue & Customs, and the Office of Fair Trading (now Competition and Markets Authority).
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