Fifa has been accused of further undermining the credibility of its anti-corruption reforms after it issued a statement reporting that the new chair of its ethics committee had effectively cleared the president, Gianni Infantino, of being under investigation.
Fifa released that statement on Monday in response to the Guardian’s report that Infantino was under investigation for more than one allegation of malpractice when he organised the removal of the two then ethics committee chairmen at the Bahrain congress last month.
One of the investigations followed complaints from some football officials in Africa that Infantino and the Fifa general secretary, Fatma Samoura, sought to improperly influence the Confederation of African Football’s presidential elections in March.
A witness who had been scheduled to meet Cornel Borbely this month, the former chairman of the ethics committee’s investigatory chamber, is understood to have been told not to fly to Zurich because the investigation had been suspended now that Borbely has been removed.
Fifa’s statement reported that Maria Claudia Rojas, the Colombian lawyer appointed to replace Borbely, “has confirmed that all files have been handed over to her and that there are no open preliminary or investigation proceedings involving the Fifa president”.
The statement was immediately criticised for blurring the separation between Fifa and the ethics committee, which constitutionally should be independent of the organisation as it investigates its officials. There were also questions over how Rojas had been able to authorise such a categorical statement, having been appointed only one month earlier with, according to Borbely, hundreds of investigations to deal with.
No transition or handover process has yet taken place for Rojas and the only contact she has had with Borbely since her appointment has been a letter from her suggesting they have a meeting.
Fifa declined to say how Rojas had been informed about the nature of the continued investigations, or whether she had been to Fifa’s Zurich offices in person to visit the secretariat of the ethics committee and see the files. A spokesperson said: “She has been provided access to the files and the official records of the ethics committee. Therefore she is aware of what investigations are ongoing.”
However, it is understood that not all ethics committee files are held at the secretariat within Fifa’s headquarters. The organisation’s code of ethics gives the committee chairman the power to conduct some sensitive investigations, such as inquiries into the conduct of the president, using outside offices or law firms. Without talking to Borbely, it is not clear how Rojas can have satisfied herself that “all files had been handed over to her”.
Borbely has declined to discuss Fifa matters since his removal, when he protested that Fifa’s reforms had been “neutralised” and set back, because it would take a long time for a new chairperson to absorb the detail of the cases in hand.
Deborah Unger, of the campaign group Transparency International’s corruption in sport initiative, said: “It is not convincing; there is no evidence of how the new chairperson can have reached this conclusion so quickly. It also does not show real independence for a statement to be issued on her behalf by Fifa itself.”
Fifa, asked about the basis for the statement that there were no investigations into Infantino, and whether some sensitive files were held outside its offices, said: “Fifa will refrain from commenting any further on baseless speculation.”
By David Conn
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