Bribing Bin Hammam: The Cosmos, Don Garber and Which Side Are You On?

Now that Cohiba Don has announced that our humble but beloved little league is on the verge of obtaining a huge tract of land upon which to build his personal monument, the question becomes just how much stinking, greasy slime will be involved in putting a team into it. While I'm certain it's completely coincidental that The Don, who was born and raised in Flushing, Queens has made building a stadium in Flushing, Queens the cornerstone and crowning achievement of his life's work, I'm nonetheless grateful that the Commissioner didn't grow up in Gary, Indiana.

I'm going to assume that, for once, Garber's statement was vetted by the highly competent (albeit New-York-resident) denizens of the MLS media shop, and isn't just another case of The Don shooting his mouth off with little basis in fact and move on to the salient question.

Namely, who is it exactly who's going to own the team that will grace this certain-to-be astronomically expensive league financed memorial to His Don-ness once the last badly pockmarked fat guy in thin socks drives away from the construction site with the last bag full of money for, um, "labor consulting".

The assumption is that once the building is a sure thing MLS will hold what will amount to an auction. For certain it will be tarted up with bid books and technical evaluations and committees and Powerpoint presentations and swanky videos produced by some of the tonier Manhattan graphics shops, but at the end of the day even the most casual of MLS observers knows that the bottom line is going to be that five letter word: money.

(Well yes, greed is a five letter word too, but I'm feeling generous today.)

At this point in the narrative, we need to leave Cohiba Don sitting in his car gazing across the verdant fields of Queens NY while visions of bulldozers and concrete dance in his head and check in on our old friend Mohammad Bin Hammam.

When we left Binny Ham, he was basking in the afterglow of a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling to the effect that while he was clearly as guilty as all hell of having passed along $40,000 bribes to 25 Caribbean Football executives in order to buy their votes for President of FIFA, the fact is that there's almost nothing in the way of actual, physical proof.

Thus, the Court ordered that FIFA immediately rescind BinMo's lifetime ban, adding that while they have very little doubt as to his guilt, FIFA needed to reopen the investigation and find some actual evidence.

Fortunately, at about the same time, the Asian Football Confederation received the results of an audit they commissioned from PriceWaterhouse Cooper (PwC) which shows that, among other things, Bin Hammam appears to have been on the take and for big, big money.

FIFA passed the whole deal along to their investigation committee, which was already taking a long hard look at the Qatar 2022 bid (the latest revelation is that Qatar offered the son of the President of the African Federation a million dollars to throw a party in South Africa which was only worth about 200k.), and issued Binny another suspension. He raced back to Zurich to get the CAS to toss this one out as well, but they refused.

The biggest issue is $14 million he received in two payments just prior to his awarding of a highly controversial one billion dollar "master rights agreement" with World Sports Group of Singapore which, basically, grants WSG almost total control over pretty much everything involved in staging, promoting and broadcasting AFC matches and, apparently at what some observers feel is a bargain basement price.

This kind of deal is rare - "unheard of" might be another term one could apply - in football because the governing bodies like to have a little say now and again in the wheres and the whens and the whos of staging international matches. But Bin Hammam had the same kind of power in the AFC that Uncle Jack had at CONCACAF, so he waved away all complaints and made the deal.

In return, according to the accountants, for a big old pile of loot.

PwC says that $2 million of the money Bin Hammam pocketed was paid directly by ISE, which World Sport Group lists as one of their three primary shareholders..

(The other two principals are Lagardere Unlimited, a French company partly owned by a branch of the Qatar government, and Dentsu, which was heavily involved in the FIFA ISL bribery scandal.)

The audit also claims that the other $12 million payment came from Al Baraka Investment and Development Co., whose Assistant CEO was also, according to PwC, the managing partner of WSG at the time of the payment.

The money was paid directly into an AFC account, from whence Binny Ham proceeded to use it for personal expenses. In fact, FIFA is now investigating whether this fund was the source of the million dollars Bin Hammam handed to Jack Warner to use as bribes for the CFU.

Either way, the auditors say it appears that the Qatari used the AFC to launder the money so that it wasn't directly traceable to him personally.

Much of this would be easier to follow using the financial records from the AFC office in Kuala Lumpur, Maylaysia. Unfortunately, those records turned up missing.

Maylaysian police investigated the disappearance and quickly found an AFC employee who admitted stealing the file and turning it over to a man named Kong Lee Toong who is, it turns out, the husband of a woman named Amelia Gan, who was the AFC’s director of finance under Bin Hammam until being replaced last year.

Luckily for Ms. Gan, she was able to land on her feet and now lives in Qatar where she works as a "club licensing officer" for Qatar Stars League, which is headed by a member of the Qatari royal family, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmad Al Thani.

It goes without saying that, like the Qatar 2022 bid/bribery "whistle blower" who suddenly did an Emily Litella ("Nevermind"), she is unavailable for questioning by FIFA, Interpol or anybody else. Having information that Qatar wants kept secret is a lot like winning the lottery, and the IRS doesn't come snurfling around for a taste.

As for her husband, Mr. Toong, who was the man the stolen WSG-Bin Hammam payment records were delivered to, in September Maylaysian Federal police charged him with theft of documents but then, just a few weeks later, all charges were quietly dropped. No explanation was given, and Mr. Toong was able to join his beloved bride in Qatar.

I know. What a shock.

Most of the financial details of this have been unearthed by a truly courageous Singapore-based reporter named James Dorsey, whose blog is an must-read to get any kind of a real handle on a massively complex tale which I have tried to condense.

Dorsey got ahold of what is being described as AFC "internal documents", including a copy of the audit, which lay out a lot of details which World Sport Group is finding very embarrassing. This has led to a series of increasingly panicky letters from World Sport Group's legal counsel which make for fascinating reading.

To the charge that Bin Hammam handed the AFC a badly one sided sweetheart deal in return for a huge bribe, she claims that PriceWaterhouse Cooper "are incorrect and misconceived in suggesting that the MRA (master rights agreement) was undervalued. They have neither considered the terms of the contract correctly, the market, nor the circumstances in which it was negotiated.”

Yeah, those damned accountants. Somebody ought to explain accounting to them.

Furthermore, WSG went to the Singapore High Court in an attempt to get Dorsey to reveal the source of his information which, they say, is someone who “must have deep knowledge of the matters referred to in your article”

Which is kind of like admitting that it's all true. But then, when WSG started paying big time lawyers to go after the leaker, they had pretty much done that already.

WSG is asking the court to force Dorsey to answer six specific questions about his sources, information which they apparently intend to use to sue him for defamation as they reportedly have with several other journalists who have dared to write stuff they don't like.

As he puts it:

The legal effort, part of a company strategy apparently designed to hide its secrets at whatever cost rather than protect legitimate privacy, is intended to intimidate and threaten the media and their sources, whistle blowers and anyone critical of WSG. Sources said WSG cared little about reputational damage that its actions may cause because the company and Mr. O’Brien would have a lot to lose with a weakening of Mr. Bin Hammam’s influence, reform of the AFC, greater transparency and a thorough investigation of WSG’s relationship with the Asian soccer body. “There is a lot at stake for O’Brien,” one source said.

We'll leave that, however, so that we can get back to Don Garber, puffing on a Partagas Habaneros and roughing out the speech he'll give the day they open The Don Garber Soccer Complex at Flushing Meadows.

Something else he's surely looking forward to is the day when they open the auction for ownership of New York Deuce and he gets to say "Who'll start the bidding at $100 million?".

And that, sadly enough for him, is where he's got a problem.

Because as everyone knows, the guy who may want it the most - and who has the capacity to easily outbid everybody else - is none other than neoCosmos CEO Seamus O'Brien and his Saudi partners, Sela Sport.

This would be the same Seamus O'Brien who is Chairman and CEO of World Sport Group, whose lawyers are now trying desperately to quash this story.

And the same Sela Sport which is represented by one Hussein Mohsin Al Harthy, the brother-in-law of Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel, who owns ISE, the outfit which PwC says gave Bin Hammam the millions of dollars in bribes in return for signing off on the WSG rights deal.

Bottom line, whoever else is in the room when the bidding opens, if Seamus O'Brien wants the neoCosmos in MLS - and he certainly does; otherwise his purchase of the name rights makes no sense at all - then he's going to be a full partner in Major League Soccer L.L.C.

Keir Radnedge, probably the most widely respected football journalist in the world - among other things, he was the editor of World Soccer Magazine for 20 years, andhas written over 30 books on the subject - is also the chairman of the Football Commission of the International Sports Press Association (AIPS).

He recently wrote that WSG and O'Brien's legal strategy is nothing less than an assault on press freedom and sent the Cosmos a formal request for comment.

They did not respond.

So the question for Don Garber and MLS as a whole will soon come down to a simple one, namely "Do you care about anything other than money?"

Either MLS and its Commissioner are opposed to the rampant culture of corruption and bribery which has swirled around international football for decades or they're not. If they are, it would seem odd to eagerly jump into bed with a man who runs a company which stands accused of bribing a soccer executive in order to get a deal which a highly respected accounting firm says was dicey at best.

More importantly, Garber needs to demand some answers before O'Brien is allowed to bid to become a partner in MLS:

- Will he agree to allow FIFA's investigators free and unfettered access to all WSG records, accounts and emails related to the AFC agreement, and make same available to legitimate working media?

- Will he himself cooperate fully with the FIFA ethics committee in its ongoing investigation of Mohammad Bin Hammam, and make any and all employees of WSG and it's partners available for questioning?

- Will he agree to immediately drop all legal proceedings against journalists, and agree to refrain from doing so in the future?

- Will he agree to operate in an open and transparent fashion which includes full disclosure of his partnership relations with foreign based entities which may have involvement in FIFA ethics violations including bribery of officials and intimidation of journalists?

I only wish I thought for a minute that the size of the Cosmos pockets was not, in the end, certain to trump everything else.

At which point MLS will have achieved another of it's fondest dreams:

They'll be just like everybody else in world soccer.