A whistle-blower whose evidence was deemed unreliable and inaccurate in a report investigating allegations of corruption in the awarding of soccer’s World Cups says she’s a victim of FIFA’s “culture of silence.”
Bonita Mersiades, head of communications for the Australian 2022 World Cup bid team, was fired in January 2010, 11 months before FIFA’s executive board made the surprise choice to pick Qatar ahead of offers from the U.S., Japan, Korea and Australia. Mersiades said by phone she met three times with Michael Garcia, the former U.S. attorney looking into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
“There’s a culture of silence in FIFA,” Mersiades said from Perth, Australia. “There are issues right at the very top of FIFA that they wouldn’t like being made public so it’s in their interest to discredit it.”
The 42-page report released by the adjudicatory chamber of FIFA’s ethics panel said Garcia’s work failed to unearth enough wrongdoing to merit a re-vote. Mersiades said she recognized her evidence in the report’s allegations of breaches by Australia’s bid that included inappropriate behavior of bid consultants and a plan to distribute development money from the Australian government to African countries that were home to FIFA voters.
“I’m not quite sure which bit of my evidence was unreliable,” Mersiades said. “I believe it was an extremely contradictory position in the report. It wasn’t just some of my evidence, I suspect they relied on all of my evidence to come up with what they came up with it.”
Shortly after the publication of the report, Garcia released a statement saying he disputed its findings and would appeal against it, saying it contained “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions.”
Mersiades was one of two witnesses cited as a “whistle-blower” in the report, and the testimony of both was criticized. Phaedra Al Majid, a former member of Qatar’s bid team, issued a sworn statement in July 2011 retracting claims she made about the Arab nation using its wealth to buy votes. The report, while not naming her, said the source was someone who made claims before retracting them in the past.
Yesterday’s report said investigators discounted all evidence supplied by the whistle-blower against Qatar’s bid, claiming the individual “altered evidence to support its allegations.”
Al Majid said she was considering whether or not to comment. Garcia didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment about his contact with Mersiades. Hans-Joachim Eckert, who reviewed Garcia’s evidence and was the author of the summary, also didn’t respond.
“We are denigrated,” Mersiades said of the report’s portrayal of her and Al Majid. “Even if they really do think our evidence is unreliable, why would you denigrate people to that extent?”
‘Didn’t add up’
Eckert’s report said Mersiades “undermined her credibility” as a witness by speaking to the press about her meetings with investigators despite agreeing that she wouldn’t. Mersiades denied making such a promise and says she informed Garcia that she had spoken at a conference, where she revealed she was co-operating with the investigation.
“There was certainly no undertaking not to talk to the media in the first place,” Mersiades said by phone.
Mersiades said she was fired within two weeks of the new year in 2010 by the former chief executive of Football Federation Australia Ben Buckley after bid consultants had asked him to remove her.
“I had been asking questions about what we were up to,” she said. “There were so many things in the Australian bid that didn’t add up, that didn’t make sense.”
Eckert’s report said “there is a prima facie case that two consultants violated the bidding and ethics rules.” It says one of the consultants “gave the appearance, at least to his employer, that he was improperly influencing the process.”
‘Brown paper bags’
The report also said certain payments made by the Australian soccer federation to the regional body for the sport in the Caribbean and North and Central America “commingled” in part with the personal funds of the body’s then president Jack Warner. Warner quit soccer before he could be investigated for corruption. The FFA said in a statement that it will seek advice from FIFA’s ethics committee on “the next steps in the process” while it reviews the statement.
“Others used to joke around the management table about the brown paper bags that were needed to win the World Cup bid,” Mersiades said. “There was no doubt the World Cup bid wasn’t about who had the best argument to host it. That’s not what it was about.”
Mersiades said there were mistakes in the FIFA report, denying a claim that she offered to pass on a computer containing e-mails from her time with the bid. She said her computer was taken from her the day she left her post with the FFA.
Mersiades, who continues to work as a media consultant, said she remains convinced of her propriety and her evidence which the report said “often did not support its specific recollections and allegations.”
“I’m disappointed that they would say that but I really don’t care because at the end of the day I know that I’m right,” she said. “If they choose to ignore it that’s their problem.”