Fifa audit official Richard Lai admits bribery in US federal probe
The sprawling US investigation into bribery and corruption in international football has reached into Asia and claimed the first guilty plea from a senior official in the new Fifa leadership.
A member of the Fifa Audit and Compliance Committee, Richard Lai of Guam, was suspended by the Asian Football Confederation on Friday after admitting taking about a million dollars in bribes related to elections and buying influence among Fifa voters.
Lai, a US citizen and president of Guam's football federation since 2001, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, on Thursday.
The AFC executive committee member admitted two counts of wire fraud conspiracy in connection with multiple schemes to accept and pay bribes to football officials.
In a statement on Friday, the Malaysia-based AFC said it "provisionally suspended Richard Lai from football with immediate effect".
The Fifa ethics committee, which typically imposes life bans on officials who plead guilty in Brooklyn, is likely to apply its sanction later.
Lai's case marks a stunning step forward in the US federal investigation, which had indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to football in the Americas since 2015.
The latest plea reaches deep into Asian football for the first time and involves an official who retained his position monitoring Fifa's multibillion-dollar income and spending in the transition from former president Sepp Blatter to his successor Gianni Infantino.
Lai also pleaded guilty to failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and agreed to pay more than 1.1 million dollars (£850,000) in forfeiture and penalties. The plea was entered before US District Judge Pamela K Chen.
Bridget M Rohde, an acting US attorney, announced the guilty plea and said it "marks another important step in our ongoing effort to root out corruption in international soccer".
"The defendant abused the trust placed in him as a soccer official in order to line his own pockets. The defendant's breach of trust was particularly significant given his position as a member of the Fifa Audit and Compliance Committee, which must play an important and independent role if corruption within Fifa is to be eliminated."
According to the criminal information to which Lai pleaded guilty, he received more than 850,000 dollars (£657,000) in bribes between 2009 and 2014 from a faction of football officials in the Asian region in exchange for using his influence.
The cash was intended to advance the interests of the group that bribed him, including by helping officials in that faction identify other officials to offer bribes.
Lai also received 100,000 dollars (£77,000) in bribes in 2011 from an official of the AFC who was then running for the Fifa presidency, in exchange for Lai's vote and support in an upcoming Fifa presidential election.
Mohamed bin Hammam, the AFC president who was running against Mr Blatter in that election, was later banned for life from football by Fifa.