Revisiting the “Public International Organization” Designation for International Sports Organizations under the FCPA

Three years have passed since U.S. federal prosecutors rocked the global sports community by indicting roughly 40 individuals in connection with an investigation into corruption at FIFA. Some preliminary commentary suggested that prosecutors in the FIFA case might bring charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). U.S. prosecutors instead pursued cases under money laundering, racketeering, and fraud charges against the individuals—primarily officials at FIFA and other soccer organizations—who accepted the bribes. In December 2017, for example, prosecutors obtained their first convictions from jury trials in this case, as Juan Ángel Napout (former president of South American football’s governing body) and José Maria Marin (the former president of Brazil’s football federation) were found guilty of racketeering, money laundering, and fraud for accepting large sums of money in exchange for lucrative FIFA media rights deals and influence over FIFA tournament hosting decisions.

The reason that the DOJ has only targeted bribe-taking FIFA officials, and has not used the FCPA to prosecute those who paid those bribes, is that bribes paid to FIFA officials fall outside the FCPA’s scope. But that could, and perhaps should, change.

The 1998 amendments to the FCPA expanded the statute’s scope to cover bribes not just to officials of foreign governments, but to officials of “public international organizations.” An organization may be designated as a public international organization either through an executive order pursuant to an existing statute (the International Organizational Immunities Act), or—importantly for present purposes—“any other international organization that is designated by the President by Executive order[.]” Pursuant to this statutory authority, the President has the power to designate international sports governing bodies like FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and others as “public international organizations” for FCPA purposes. (The fact that these sports bodies are nominally private does not prevent this; while most of the roughly 80 public international organizations currently covered by the FCPA are intergovernmental organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the list also includes some private, non-profit organizations, such as the International Fertilizer Development Center.) If the President designated international sports organizations like FIFA or the IOC as “public international organizations” for FCPA purposes, then individuals or firms that bribed officials at those organizations could be prosecuted under the FCPA, so long as the U.S. has jurisdiction over the defendants.

This is not a novel or radical idea. For decades, legislators and activists have clamored for designating sports organizations such as FIFA and the IOC as public international organizations under the FCPA. The discussion first surfaced in 1999, when U.S. Senator George Mitchell requested President Clinton to declare the IOC a public international organization following findings of a bribery-ridden culture in the Olympic movement. Senator John McCain later introduced a bill that would bring the IOC under the definition of public international organization under the FCPA, but the bill never made it out of committee. Although these past efforts proved unsuccessful, the time is ripe for revisiting this idea. Indeed, there are at least two compelling arguments for designating FIFA and the IOC as public international organizations under the FCPA.

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