The reporter who exposed the FIFA scandal that toppled Sepp Blatter
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The biggest news story of the year was breaking, but the journalist responsible was fast asleep.
It was just after dawn on May 27 when Andrew Jennings’ phone began ringing. Swiss police had just launched a startling raid on a luxury hotel in Zurich, arresting seven top FIFA officials and charging them and others with running a $150 million racket. The world was stunned.
The waking world, that is. If Jennings had bothered to climb out of bed, he wouldn’t have been surprised at the news. After all, he was the man who set the investigation in motion, with a book in 2006, “FOUL! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote-Rigging and Ticket Scandals,” followed by an exposé aired on the BBC’s “Panorama” program that same year, and then another book in 2014, called “Omerta: Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Organised Crime Family.”
“My phone started ringing at 6 in the morning,” Jennings said Tuesday from his farm in the hilly north of England. “I turned it off actually to get some more sleep, because whatever is happening at 6 in the morning is still going to be there at lunch time, isn’t it?”
If you can’t tell already, Jennings is an advocate of slow, methodical journalism. For half a century, the 71-year-old investigative reporter has been digging into complex, time-consuming stories about organized crime. In the 1980s, it was bad cops, the Thai heroin trade and the Italian mob. In the ’90s, he turned to sports, exposing corruption with the International Olympic Committee.
For the past 15 years, Jennings has focused on the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), international football’s governing body. As other journalists were ball watching — reporting scorelines or writing player profiles — Jennings was digging into the dirty deals underpinning the world’s most popular game.
“Credit in this saga should go to the dogged obsession of a single reporter, Andrew Jennings,” the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins wrote last week, citing in particular Jennings’ BBC Panorama film called “The Beautiful Bung: Corruption and the World Cup.”
Now, after decades of threats, suspicions about tapped phones and intermittent paychecks, Jennings is being vindicated with every twist and turn in the FIFA scandal.
During a phone interview with The Washington Post Tuesday morning, he called FIFA President Sepp Blatter “a dead man walking.” Two hours later, Blatter announced he was stepping down, just days after being re-elected.
“I know that they are criminal scum, and I’ve known it for years,” he said. “And that is a thoughtful summation. That is not an insult. That is not throwing about wild words.”
“These scum have stolen the people’s sport. They’ve stolen it, the cynical thieving bastards,” he said. “So, yes, it’s nice to see the fear on their faces.”
A ‘document hound’
The best way for people in the U.S. or elsewhere to imagine Andrew Jennings is to roll Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein together, then add a touch of a Scottish burr and plenty of flannel. Jennings was born in Scotland but moved to London as a child. His grandfather played for a prominent London football team, Clapton Orient (now called Leyton Orient), but Jennings had little interest in the sport. He did, however, have a nose for journalism.
After finishing school, Jennings joined the Sunday Times in London, where he got a taste of investigative journalism. He went to work for the BBC, but when the network wouldn’t air his documentary on corruption within Scotland Yard, he quit and joined a rival program called “World in Action.” He turned his police investigation into his first book, “Scotland Yard’s Cocaine Connection,” and a documentary.
“I’m a document hound. If I’ve got your documents, I know all about you,” he said. “This journalism business is easy, you know. You just find some disgraceful, disgustingly corrupt people and you work on it! You have to. That’s what we do. The rest of the media gets far too cozy with them. It’s wrong. Your mother told you what was wrong. You know what’s wrong. Our job is to investigate, acquire evidence.”
That is, essentially, Jennings’ mantra: Take time, dig up dirt and don’t trust those in power. He applied the same logic to international drug smuggling rings and Italian mafiosi.
Then sports. After the Scotland Yard expose, a colleague at “World In Action” named Paul Greengrass — who later became a Hollywood filmmaker, directing several Jason “Bourne” films as well as the recent blockbuster “Captain Phillips” — suggested investigating the IOC.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ ” Jennings remembers. Soon, however, the clueless sports fan would become steeped in the inner workers of the Olympic committee. “When I looked into the IOC, I discovered the president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was universally sucked up to by the sports press, was a Franco fascist. He thought the wrong side won World War II.” (Samaranch admitted to serving as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s sports minister but claimed he was not a fascist at heart.)
Jennings wrote a trilogy of books about a series of alleged boondoggles, bribes and drug controversies that culminated in the scandal surrounding the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where dozens of IOC members were expelled or sanctioned for wrongdoing. He said that most sports reporters wouldn’t touch these subjects for fear of losing access to top officials and athletes, or because it simply took too much time and effort. When Samaranch stepped down in 2001, Jennings decided to shift his focus. “By then I was aware that there was something very, very stinky at FIFA,” he said.
‘There was something very, very stinky at FIFA’
From prior investigations and studying organized crime, Jennings knew he would need sources to crack open the secretive football association. “You know that everywhere, any organization, if there is any sign at all of how corrupt the people at the top are, there’s decent people down in the middle management, because they’ve got mortgages, they’ve got children to put through school,” Jennings said. “They are just employees and they will have a sense of proper morality. So you’ve got to get them to slip you the stuff out the back door, it used to be from the filing cabinet, now it’s from the server.”
So the Scotsman decided to ambush one of Sepp Blatter’s first news conferences after being re-elected in 2002. “I went to the press conference there in their Zurich headquarters,” he said. “Sloping all up the walls on either side was the employees, the robots all in their FIFA blazers with robotic faces, nothing to say, just lining the walls. So I said, ‘Right, they’re the ones I want. I’ve got to get the message to them that I’m here. I’ll cross the road for a fight. I want it. I’m looking for it.’ ”
If Blatter’s downfall can be traced to a single moment, it is probably the one that came next. When the FIFA president finished his speech, Jennings grabbed the microphone and blurted out a deliberately outrageous question.
“I’m surrounded by all these terribly posh reporters in suits and silk ties and buttoned up shirts for God’s sake,” he remembered. “And here’s me in me hiking gear. I get the mike and I said ‘Herr Blatter. Have you ever taken a bribe?’
“Talk about crashing the party,” Jennings recalled Tuesday. “Reporters are moving away from me as if I’ve just let out the biggest smell since bad food. Well, that’s what I wanted? Thank you, idiot reporters. The radar dish on top of my head is spinning around to all these blazers against the wall, saying ‘Here I am. I’m your boy. I’m not impressed by these tossers. I know what they are. I’ve done it to the IOC, and I’ll do it to them.’ ”
The outcome was doubly golden. Blatter denied ever taking a bribe, which gave Jennings a great headline. But he also got the goods. “Six weeks later I’m in the dark at about midnight down where the river in Zurich widens out into the lake, standing by a very impressive looking 19th century office block, wondering why I’ve been asked to go there by somebody I don’t know when the door opens and I’m dragged in,” Jennings recalls. “I’m taken into a very posh set of offices . . . and within half an hour a senior FIFA official arrived carrying a wonderful armful of documents. And it ran from there. And it still does.”
Those documents outlined the incredible opulence of FIFA’s executive committee, chief among them Sepp Blatter. Jennings reported that Blatter had been paying himself a secret, six-figure bonus. “In Herr Blatter’s case, he doesn’t know what a scheduled flight is. He has no idea. He hasn’t taken one for about 40 years. He always has to buy a private jet out of Zurich. Even if he was going shopping at the local mall he’d probably hire one,” Jennings said. “He’s got to be given constant evidence that he’s a powerful, important person. So the big Mercedes taking him to the private jet engine at the Zurich airport is what sustains him.”
Blatter threatened to sue Jennings for defamation, but didn’t. Jennings kept digging into the president and his fellow FIFA executives. At times he suspected that his phone had been tapped, his computer hacked.
In 2006, he published his first book on the organization, “Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals,” which accused Blatter and other top football executives of accepting bribes. The officials didn’t just deny it. Sometimes they physically defended themselves. “Jack Warner punched me, spat at me” on camera, Jennings said. “These guys come out to the car park and suddenly there’s me: terrible and old and gray and lined, saying, ‘Excuse me! Did you take your bribes through this or that company?’ And they go all rigid.”
That same year, he aired more allegations against FIFA on Panorama, a BBC documentary program and then more still in 2010 on the same current affairs show.
Leveling the playing field
“Foul!” earned Jennings a following, including admirers within law enforcement. In 2009, he got a call from an “ex-spook” who wanted to introduce Jennings to a few people.
“I go down to London to this anonymous office block, and you go in and there are three men with American accents,” Jennings remembers. “They’ve got government-style haircuts. They introduce themselves as FBI special agents and give me their business cards, which say ‘organized crime squad.’ ”
“Bliss,” Jennings remembered thinking. “The European police forces will do nothing [about FIFA] so it was damn good to see professional investigators get involved.”
Jennings was eager to help, and after making a few phone calls to sources in the Americas, he sent confidential Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) financial reports to the FBI and the IRS. They showed mysterious, multi-million-dollar “commissions,” Jennings claimed.
“I said, ‘Right, let’s just level the playing field a bit,’ ” he said. “And I gave them the documents that really got this going.”
Jennings trusted the FBI, rather than his fellow reporters, “to look at an organization like FIFA and know what crooks they are,” he said. For six years, he’s used his sources to stay abreast of the investigation. Jennings said he knew that a grand jury had met in the past year to consider bringing charges, but didn’t know who would be charged, or when.
The answer came while Jennings was sleeping that morning on May 27. Swiss officials arrived en force to the five-star Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, where FIFA’s top officials were meeting ahead of an election to determine if Blatter would remain president. In a matter of minutes, seven current FIFA executives — including its vice president, CONCACAF chief Jeffrey Webb — were arrested and charged with racketeering, bribery, money laundering and fraud. Seven other men, including former FIFA No. 2 Jack Warner, were also indicted in a Brooklyn federal court.
“Isn’t it wonderful,” Jennings said. “You are in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, with all expenses paid, [drinking champagne] on Tuesday night. And you’re still sleeping it off at 6 o’clock on Wednesday morning when there is a knock, knock, knock. And a police officer asks: ‘Will you put your clothes on, sir?’
“They are never going to be in a luxury hotel again,” he said. “They are going to be in detention in Switzerland. They will lose their extradition cases, because I’m sure the Department of Justice will put on a good case. The Swiss will have to let them go [to the U.S.]. … Will they bail them in America? They are all flight risks. They are all foreigners. The first chance they’ll be over the border and gone. So I think they are going to find out just how interesting Rikers Island can be.”
Jennings makes no effort to hide his happiness over the fact that the men he has been investigating for 15 years have finally been arrested.
“It’s been a very happy week since they got that knock on that door,” he admitted. “It’s nice to know that Herr Blatter won’t be able to sleep tonight. And that he’ll finally get to sleep around half past 5. And at 6 o’clock someone will slam a car door outside and he’ll be shooting out of bed and under the bed. Serves him right. He’s not a nice man.”
Shortly after Jennings spoke to The Washington Post, Sepp Blatter, just four days after being re-elected, announced that he would be stepping down as president of FIFA. A special election will be called later this year. “It is my deep care for FIFA and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision,” said Blatter, who has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime. “While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football — the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA.”
As for the reporter behind the biggest sports scandal of the century, Jennings said he can retire soon knowing that his investigations led to real change.”Then I can do my garden up here in the hills and play with my lovely children,” he said, staring out his window at the English countryside.
“I’ve had satellite trucks blocking the quarter mile drive up to my farm here in the hills” since the scandal broke, the freelance journalist said. “It’s great fun.”
After years of being barred from FIFA news conferences, Jennings said he’s looking forward to seeing the indicted executives in a U.S. court.
“I just hope I can afford the airfare to New York and that someone will let me sleep on their couch,” he said, “so that I can be there in the [courthouse] press box to say, ‘Hi guys! It’s been a long run, hasn’t it?’ ”
© 2015, The Washington Post
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