FIFA’s lack of institutional integrity evident in its treatment of whistleblowers

FIFA can’t seem to do anything right these days, other than dodge bullets and do damage control poorly.

Two whistleblowers, Phaedra Almajid, the former head of international media for Qatar 2022, and Bonita Mersiades, the former head of corporate and public affairs for Australia’s 2022 bid, have lodged a formal complaint with Michael Garcia, the head of FIFA’s investigatory arm of FIFA’s ethics committee, expressing concerns about their confidentiality being compromised in Hans Joachim Eckert’s report. The 42-page summary of Garcia’s investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, for all intents and purposes, cleared Russia and Qatar of any serious breaches that may have resulted in the nations losing their respective World Cups.

Both Almajid and Mersiades unequivocally state that Garcia and other FIFA officials promised them confidentiality in exchange for their voluntary cooperation, as is common practice when whistleblowers cooperate with investigators. Yet they contend they were easily identifiable in the summary, and in fact were identified by the German and British media shortly after the summary’s release last Thursday.

In the Eckert summary’s whistleblower section for Australia’s 2022 bid, Eckert identifies the whistleblower as “a former senior member of the Australia 2022 bid team” who was interviewed twice, once in November 2013 in New York, and once in Australia in April 2014. Eckert questioned the whistleblower’s credibility, stating that she undermined her credibility “by speaking to the press about [her] communications with the Investigatory Chamber, despite having agreed to refrain from doing so to protect the integrity of the on-going investigation.”

MORE: An unaccountable FIFA is incapable of policing itself

Mersiades finds problems with much of the summary, but on the confidentiality issue she states: “It is one thing to discount our discussions and the evidence – an investigator is entitled to do that – but it is extraordinary to single out two individuals and detail (mostly incorrectly) the contact with Mike Garcia, especially when we were assured in writing and in person that our dealings with him were confidential.”

Aljamid was identified in Eckert’s summary in the whistleblower section for Qatar’s 2022 bid as an individual who “made public allegations and the retracted those allegations in a sworn statement.” The summary continues to frame Aljamid as lacking in credibility, in part based on that statement, noting, “That statement described a motive — revenge against a bid team [she] felt [she] had been rejected by that seemed consistent with [her] actions.”

Aljamid has since admitted to retracting previously made allegations about Qatar’s bid in a sworn statement. According to the Daily Mail, who spoke with Aljamid:

“Almajid had broken a confidentiality contract pertaining to her bid employment by speaking about alleged corruption. The Qataris were threatening to sue her for $1m (£640,000) – enough to ruin her financially and put the future of her two children, one of them severely disabled, in jeopardy.

“A senior Qatari official told Almajid if she signed a sworn retraction saying that her corruption claims were a fabrication, they would cease any further legal action. That was in 2011. She signed.”

The Daily Mail also reports that there is “a recording of a conversation between Aljamid and a senior Qatari official discussing the terms of Almajid’s retraction.”

While none of these allegations are mentioned by Eckert in his summary, there is enough detail in the summary for interested parties to hold grudges, retaliate or even endanger Almajid and her family if her name was to come out. And it did. One has to wonder why these two women were covered in such detail in a report that otherwise fails to reference any other people with similar detail who cooperated with the investigation.

In Almajid’s letter to Garcia, as reported by The Guardian, she questions both Garcia and Eckert’s judgment in relation to these issues:

“My cooperation was based on your promise of confidentiality. You have said that ‘in the course of any investigation [you are] bound by confidentiality’, and ‘also want to protect anyone who would wish to come to me in good faith’. As an organization, Fifa has stated that the identities of the people you spoke with – other than current serving football officials or employees – would remain confidential.”

She continues:

“As I have explained to you and your colleagues, confidentiality was crucial to my cooperation with your investigation, considering my personal circumstances, particularly the safety of my two sons and me.”

“Not only was Herr Eckert’s summary a crude, cynical and fundamentally erroneous description of me and the information and materials I provided your investigation, it directly breached Fifa’s assurances of my confidentiality.”

In the context of the seemingly never-ending saga about FIFA’s institutional judgment, the confidentiality questions raised by both Mersiades and Aljamid raise serious concerns beyond the allegations of ethics breaches. These new allegations go to a broader case that has been lodged against FIFA in the court of public opinion for years: whether FIFA actually has any institutional integrity.

Whistleblower protections exist not simply to protect people who willingly cooperate to shed light on wrongdoing but to also encourage people in the future to come forward and provide information about questionable behavior. Both of these ends are compromised by Eckert’s report. And that raises serious institutional integrity questions, especially when piled on top of the mountain of other integrity questions that seem to be raised about FIFA on a daily basis these days.

In this case, the question you have to ask is: What signal is sent by this alleged breach in confidentiality? The answer to that is simple. If someone has evidence about FIFA wrongdoing, and FIFA’s own ethics and investigative arm can’t be trusted to maintain confidentiality, then informants will be less likely in the future to cooperate with investigations. There’s no longer any reasonable incentive for knowledgeable informants to help FIFA clean its house. It’s a win for FIFA and FA executives and associates who have little interest in people with badges and/or law degrees digging around their hard drives and asking questions about their meetings and secret handshakes. Keep quiet, retract statements, stay in line, and your credibility will be preserved. That’s the message.

MORE: Corruption shouldn’t overshadow atrocities in Qatar

When an organization can’t create and protect the incentive for whistleblowers to come forward, it raises serious concerns, not just about its ability to police itself, but whether it genuinely has any legitimate interest in doing so. Because an institution that has a genuine interest in policing itself doesn’t out people who stand up to question its integrity, especially when they’ve asked for its assistance. It goes well out of its way to protect them.

 

 

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